The Social Pandemic
Janie Mcmillin, a member of the LOG OFF writers group, explores the ways in which social media has sparked division and entertained controversy regarding one of the world's most pressing issues - the Sars-Cov-2 pandemic.
Author's note - This article is in no way a political statement, and not meant to lean one way or another. Unfortunately, the virus has been politicized way out of proportion, so anything regarding it will be seen in a slightly political light. With that being said, this is meant to be an article addressing the misuse and spread of misinformation online in a time of worldwide panic.
Did 5G cell towers cause coronavirus? Can hydroxychloroquine cure COVID-19? Is Bill Gates using the COVID-19 vaccine to microchip and track us? Was coronavirus created by the government, and are they hiding the cure from us? Is the virus a bioweapon? Is COVID-19 real?
These are the most popular conspiracy theories, circulating the internet at hyperspeed and reaching millions. The spread of coronavirus has led to the spread of misinformation and individuals worldwide approaching what exactly COVID-19 is, and speculating more than ever about its origin story (if there even is one, that is). As expected, many social media users have taken it upon themselves to spread their findings to their followers, creating a hectic environment online. In the world we live in, a pandemic mixed with social media is the perfect conspiracy-inducing cocktail.
As much good as the internet has done during this pandemic--bringing struggling students and teachers together, providing factual information and statistics to everyday people, enforcing CDC guidelines, attempting to make quarantine less isolated (online cooking tutorials, zoom gatherings, Instagram workout classes, YouTube music collaborations...)--we still overrode that with the need to interrogate and politicize anything and everything. We still have to question if a pandemic is the one at fault for 2.24 million deaths (as of February 1st, 2021) worldwide.
Doctors all over the world are facing hostility and criticism because of internet claims and falsivities. And as much as we see out-there theories, we also see somewhat rational fears being expressed. Dr Harshada Vaidya Kannur and Dr Prachee Javadekar explain how in India, landlords are fearing infection if they house any frontline workers--“...Many doctors and health workers have been asked to vacate their rented homes by landlords as they believe their stay may make them more susceptible to COVID-19.” Our faces are buried in an alternate universe, causing the consumption and blind belief of articles from overly edited Wikipedia pages, misleading Instagram headlines and captions, trending hashtags, and YouTube videos. The video “5G Bill Signed Into Law While Everyone Is Distracted By Coronavirus,” posted back in April, has been viewed over 800,000 times and shared over 120,000 times on Facebook creating a hiatus from factual information and a deep dive into conspiracies. It has since been deleted by YouTube for violating their guidelines. According to a survey done by Northwestern between August 7th and August 26th, of the 21,000 individuals surveyed across the nation, 28% of Snapchat users, 23% of Instagram users and 25% Wikipedia users believed inaccurate claims.
An article from The Atlantic by Ed Yong titled: “COVID-19 Has Changed Science Forever'' provides insight into the virus such as facts regarding the past, future, and current state of the pandemic, and the vaccine--all provided by extremely experienced medical professionals. A portion of this piece focuses on how information regarding the virus has been spread on the internet. He talks about the increased spread of preprints (less formal scientific papers) to 11,000 in just a year. This may not seem like that large of a number, but according to Richard J Abdill of the University of Minnesota, only 37,648 preprints were uploaded to bioRxiv.org (the largest biology-focused preprint server) in its first five years. The increase in preprint publication can be tied back to the virus, and the constant need for new information. These medical documentations and expert papers give everyday people the access to the cutting edge, new advances that biological professionals are making towards understanding and stopping the virus. This should be the information that we are spreading, creating hashtags on, and sending to our peers. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. So, why aren’t we choosing to believe medically evaluated, statistical papers provided about the virus over homemade conspiracies? Past pandemics, viruses, and plagues have all had the same issue of widespread conspiracies--as does anything. An article from CSUN Today highlights the chilling similarities between the spread of the bubonic plague in the 14th century and our present day pandemic. The bubonic plague was primarily blamed on Jewish people (it was widely believed that Jewish people were pouring poisonous powder into wells that circulated throughout what is now Germany and France) which led to increased anti-Semitism. Our current pandemic is being blamed on Asians and Asian Americans after the first case of COVID-19 landed in Seattle from Wuhan, China. However, according to the Toronto Star, “a new study has revealed that the first documented infected individuals who arrived from China into the western United States and Canada were not the source of widespread continental outbreaks. Instead, it is believed the virus was primarily brought by travellers flying through Europe and into the eastern United States, before spreading across the whole continent.”
Despite the efforts to dismember these theories, there is still an abundance of unfair criticism regarding the spread of COVID-19. And although conspiracies have been circulating since the beginning of time, there is that one thing that separates all these past conspiracies from present--social media.
Social media makes it scarily easy to unhinge, essentially making yourself invisible. You can completely disconnect with the world around you by logging onto your social media accounts. There are so, so many issues around this, but a big one is that your pathology is not individual anymore, but social. You believe that what you hear is valid because you are not alone; one click and 50 other people are backing up, sharing, and branching off of your conspiracy. Social media truly has the power to turn each and every human against each other in a time when we should be doing just the opposite. We are becoming a more divided nation and people have stopped listening to each other, which has led to us stop trusting each other. A New York Times article regarding the spread and belief of misinformation said: ‘It would involve doctors in Geneva at the World Health Organization, in Atlanta at the C.D.C. and in hospitals all around the world conspiring with data scientists at Johns Hopkins to produce a fantastic flow of fake information.’
If we are already asking ourselves if the vaccine makes us aliens, and if the virus is even real, we also should ask why health professionals and scientists all over the globe would lie to us; why almost half a million people are faking grievances; and possibly, if the current state of the world looks different on a small glass screen.
Freedman, Dan, et al. “Why Were Jews Blamed for the Black Death?” Moment Magazine, 19 Jan. 2021, momentmag.com/why-were-jews-blamed-for-the-black-death/.
Shafii, Cy. “CSUN History Professor Explores Similarities Between COVID-19 and Bubonic Plague.” CSUN Today, 31 Aug. 2020, csunshinetoday.csun.edu/media-releases/csun-history-professor-explores-similarities-between-covid-19-and-bubonic-plague/.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “How Do I Deal With a Friend Who Thinks Covid-19 Is a Hoax?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/magazine/coronavirus-hoax.html.