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The pandemic infodemic: how social media helps (and hurts) during the coronavirus outbreak

Right now, the world is battling a coronavirus epidemic. It started in December 2019, when a group of people from China’s northern Hubei province developed an unexplained pneumonia-like condition. By the end of the month, the local scientific community managed to pinpoint the source of the disease and establish its link to the SARS virus that terrorized the world 17 years ago.

As 2020 rolled around, the outbreak turned into an international pandemic. Each new country the virus spread to fuelled panic and demand for information regarding the disease. As a result, social media became both an indispensable source of vital information and a fertile ground for dangerous rumour-mongering, with claims of equal shock value but varying truth making big waves across the world. SBS Sourcing reported what the WHO Director-General stated: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” This situation is the testament to the raw power of social media, and a sign of how much we achieved when it comes to curtailing the spread of dangerous lies online.

Pandemics of the social media age

The coronavirus outbreak wasn’t the first to arrive in the age of social media: at least three other international pandemics occurred in the ten years preceding it. The H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, the Ebola epidemic and the Zika outbreak all had prominent, and widely documented, influence on social media conversations. Just ten years ago, NGOs weren’t necessarily well-equipped to communicate risk information online. The people used social media to look for directives, but unreliable and/or unofficial sources had the loudest voices.

By the time 2014 arrived, health organizations were much better prepared to launch their campaigns, and influencers helped them get exposure. But the social networks themselves had trouble identifying malicious actors and dealing with misinformation. These days we’ve made tremendous progress. Social networks have matured in terms of their functionality, big organizations got better at communicating online, and, following the large-scale misinformation campaigns of 2016, people have gotten a bit better at telling truth from fiction. So, SBS Sourcing is asking: “What role does social media play in this unfolding story?”

Source of verifiable information

China, famously unprepared to take the stage during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, learned its lesson, being upfront and transparent about the coronavirus situation on social media. In the days following the initial news, there was no shortage of verifiable information from official Chinese sources.

WHO and other public health organizations also use social media to inform the public about the outbreak, and control the panic. Of course, it doesn’t mean that misinformation is not being circulated among social media users. For many people, conspiracy theories are a natural response to the senseless cruelty of this crisis. They offer clarity and an opportunity to blame someone for the havoc. So it’s not unreasonable that a number of dangerous conspiracy theories ‘blew up’, offering interesting, albeit completely incorrect ways of viewing the situation. Some claim that the virus is a biological weapon, created by either the US (to kill Chinese people) or China (to kill Americans). Some claim that the outbreak was orchestrated by big tech – to undermine China’s status as the world capital of high-tech manufacturing.