COVID-19’s effects on social media

Lawrence Eady, Staff Writer

Over half of Americans get their news from social media, and because of the recent outbreak of COVID-19, reliance on social media as a news source is affecting many Americans. 

According to multiple Pew Research Center surveys, of the 55% percent of people that at least “sometimes” get their news from social media, 28% of them get it “often,” an 8% increase from the previous year. This statistic places social media sources in third place for how Americans get their news, topped only by online news websites and television news channels.

Social media sources are less regulated and policed than their official news source counterparts, and therefore contain a higher potential for the spread of misinformation and sensationalism. 

In an article about the effects of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brian Bennet of Time Magazine relays information that he gathered when he interviewed experts in the field. Of the things he wrote about, Bennet mentioned that, given the unprecedented amount of real-time information that we have access to, we are both equipped with the tools we need but also placed at the mercy of people who want to mislead us in this emotionally unsettling time.

In the article, titled “How Social Media Is Shaping Our Fears of — and Response to — the Coronavirus,” Bennet quotes Daniel Rogers, an assistant professor at New York University and co-founder of the nonprofit Global Disinformation Index. “It pulls everyone out of the Woodstock,” said Rogers in reference to the effects of COVID-19 on society. “Every scam artist, every bunk cure peddler … every conspirator, every internet troll.”

According to law enforcement and health officials, one of the ways this has manifested on social media platforms has been through “companies” posting that they found a cure in the form of a vaccine, a lozenge, a pill, etc., and that it is purchasable through their website. Another way that scam artists have attacked social media platforms is through promised “investment opportunities” that they post about where they claim that the products or services of publicly traded companies can do such things as prevent, detect, or cure the disease, and that the stock from these companies will, in turn, increase in value.

Rogers stated that social media platforms have generally taken a stance against the spread of misinformation, but he referred to it as a game of “whack-a-mole,” because most misinformation spreads at a much faster rate than social media company executives, without investing a great deal more resources into their efforts, are willing to extinguish at this time.

Aside from Rogers, other experts on the spread of misinformation say that now is a critical time for those with real, true information to be heard, a task that is more easily spoken about than carried out.

“The algorithms that shape what we see on social media typically promote content that garners the most engagement; posts that draw the most eyeballs get spread farthest,” said Bennet in relation to the spread of false information. Researchers say that this model is partially responsible for the spread of online misinformation, as posts that are the most shocking or emotionally engaging get people’s attention. 

Misinformation is not the only thing that is shocking, and therefore harmful, to users of social media. People react to the actions of other people, and when too many people outwardly express fear of something, even if that something is worth being scared over, panic can set in. 

“We’re seeing a worrying trend where specific behaviors triggered by fear and anxiety — such as loading up on toilet rolls or hand sanitizers — get normalized and further diffused because they are constantly discussed on social media,” said Santosh Vijaykumar, a health and risk communication researcher at Northumbria University.