09 Mar 2020

It’s safe to say that so far in 2020, the coronavirus (also referred to as COVID-19) outbreak has been the most talked about topic of the year. We’ve seen this mass hysteria about the spread of a disease or virus before. Back in 2009, there was an outbreak of Swine Influenza, more commonly known as Swine Flu, which was first detected in Mexico and quickly made its way around the world. Although social media was present back then, it had nowhere near the influence that it has on us today.

So, how do online social platforms play a part in causing the fear of a virus to go viral?

Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter give us constant updates right at our fingertips. In the time it takes to refresh our search page, we see the total number of cases in our country or the death toll go up another number. We see it all happen live. The fear that we will be next, becoming another case to add to the pile, combined with the spread of conspiracy theories and an abundance of misinformation on how the virus came to be and how it is spread, it’s no wonder the Earth’s population are confused and scared.

How can we avoid something when it’s number one on our trending page? We can’t look away – that would require logging out.

The worst part is, we start to listen to and trust the advice of strangers. All it takes is for one or two people to make a post about how they’ve stocked up in toilet paper should they need to be isolated for two weeks, and suddenly the shelves in all our local supermarkets have been cleared. There are Twitter threads and Facebook comment sections discussing conspiracy theories about where the COVID-19 really came from, many of which claim it was manufactured on purpose.

But are the platforms doing anything to help?

A coronavirus related search on Twitter will be greeted with a message at the top of your page from the account belonging to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). It reads ‘Know the facts: To make sure you get the best information on the novel coronavirus, resources are available from the Department of Health and Social Care’, followed by a link to the NHS website and the DHSC twitter page. A similar message, along with the NHS website link, will pop up through a search for the virus on Facebook, along with the DHSC Facebook page being the top search result.

Whilst it’s good to see that these social media giants are taking any steps at all to prevent misinformation from spreading, is a simple message all they can do to stop the dangers of obtaining information regarding a health issue via their platforms? Picture sharing site Pinterest takes a stricter approach with their awareness message should you search the virus –

Pins about this topic often violate our Community Guidelines, which prohibit harmful medical misinformation. Because of this, we’re limited search results to Pins from internationally recognised health organisations. If you’re looking for medical advice, please contact a healthcare provider.’

Here we have an example of a social media site taking real action against what is a growing issue. Pinterest are not just warning their users, they’re preventing them from being the victims of distortion around the coronavirus.

It comes as no surprise that there are companies jumping at the opportunity to profit off the scaremongering. Ads for medical products such as masks and even false treatments became such a problem that Facebook have now put a ban on the content, as well as blocking pages and groups themed around COVID-19 from its algorithm.

Whilst social media can be a great resource, it may not be the most trustworthy if you are seeking medical information. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the coronavirus, speak with a medical professional and consult reliable sources such as the DHSC and the NHS website.