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The darker side of social media in a crisis

Alison Brown | Group Account Director Communications, Social Media Leave a Comment

Most people will agree that 2020 has been an horrendous year so far. It started with large parts of Australia destroyed by bushfires that wiped out a billion animals and drove many species to the brink of extinction. The air was so polluted that many people had to wear a mask outside.

Little did we know in January that masks would soon become a highly sought after item, used as part of efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic has killed more than 800,000 people globally and wreaked national economies due to lockdowns, travel restrictions and closed international borders.

If that wasn’t enough, there have been devastating floods across the world, escalating tension between the US and Iran, and #BlackLivesMatter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.

It’s felt, at times, that we’ve never been more physically divided. It’s interesting then to examine the role that social media plays in our lives during a crisis or periods of intense unrest.

Many of us treat social media as a window to the wider world – albeit a slightly tinted one due to in-built algorithms. It’s a vehicle used by billions of people to engage with friends, family and communities. Used responsibly in a crisis, it can educate, unite and give people a sense of security and belonging.

But there’s also a darker side to social media that sadly, most people are all too familiar with. In a crisis, there is generally a heightened feeling of anxiety in the community. The status quo may be challenged and people may demand answers to questions to satisfy a desire for more certainty and control over their changing circumstances. Anxiety can lead to anger and social media platforms unfortunately become fertile territory for keyboard warriors hell-bent on causing offence to vent their opinions and random ‘reckons’.

You don’t have to look far online to find evidence of this. You only have to check the comments section of any Facebook Live stream of the government’s 1pm COVID-19 updates, or log in to Twitter and follow the hashtag #nzpol for ugly political commentary and personal attacks.

Equally alarming were the nasty rumours, inaccurate advice and bullying that swept through social media following the second wave of infections in New Zealand. Health Minister Chris Hipkins devoted at least one of his media briefings to this issue, highlighting the harm and danger they were causing to individuals and the government’s efforts at controlling the virus’ spread.

Facebook and Twitter are just two of the places where misinformation is shared and the trolling is in overdrive. But other than asking the trolls and rumour-mongers to stop, there is very little the government can do. The big platforms, which many people rely on for their news, appear to do little to police the proliferation of fake news, and media outlets can be slow to moderate their own commentary sections, causing further harm.

The public is encouraged to regard the government’s Unite Against COVID-19 site as the one source of factual information about New Zealand’s response to the pandemic.

With this reminder comes a lesson in the importance of fact-checking. But in a world where it’s hard to tell what spreads faster – conspiracy theories or COVID-19 – I’ll take comfort from the idea that regular hand washing and wearing a mask in public places will provide me with some protection from the virus.

If only we had a virtual mask to just as easily prevent the harm caused by rumour and misinformation online.

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