The illiterate of the 21st century are not those who cannot read or write, but those who blindly believe in forwarded messages and spread them without understanding the content (Gowreesunkar, 2020). Indeed, while on one side, the coronavirus is travelling the world, on the other side, information is travelling faster than the pandemic, often resulting to message distortion and misinformation: The coronavirus has not only marked the history of world economies and societies, but also that of online communication.
People of the 21st century live in a wired world and despite being geographically dispersed, they are connected by technology. Within a click of their mouse or a touch of their finger, they access information on social media such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram inter alia, which are also vehicles for fake news and disinformation (Larson, 2018). However, is it not that the social media panic traveled faster than the COVID-19 spread. Is it not that media hyped the pandemic so much that it has created a new kind of peep (common social media jargon for the word ‘people’) called “panic-induced population” (pip). This is also well articulated in the study of Depoux et al (2020) who advocate that a striking particularity of this crisis is the coincidence of virology and virality: not only did the virus itself spread very rapidly, but so did the information – and misinformation – about the outbreak, and thus the panic that it created among the public.
Pandemics and epidemics across centuries
Pandemics and epidemics have always existed since the dawn of time and they did ravage humanity throughout their existence. Diseases and outbreak were occurring, but communities and societies contained them, fought them and survived. Certainly, technology was not existent during those time and hence, messages could not travel worldwide as is the case in today’s world. History shows a number epidemics and pandemics which marked human existence (Owen, 2020).
About 5,000 years ago, an epidemic wiped out a prehistoric village in China. The epidemic ravaged the entire region and the rest of the world was unaware about it, as there was no means of spreading the information. The bodies of the dead were stuffed inside a house and were later burned down. The archaeological site is now called “Hamin Mangha” and is one of the best-preserved prehistoric sites in northeastern China. Around 430 B.C., an epidemic ravaged the people of Athens and lasted for five years. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 100,000 people. The Black Death, which traveled from Asia to Europe from the year 1346, wiped out over half of Europe’s population. It was caused by a strain of the bacterium and by the time the plague ended, 15% of the population in London died.
Moving further, the infection that caused the cocoliztli epidemic, in 1545, was a form of viral hemorrhagic fever that killed 15 million inhabitants of Mexico and Central America. The American plague of the 16th century was a cluster of Eurasian diseases brought by European explorers. These illnesses, including smallpox, contributed to the collapse of the Inca and Aztec civilizations and 90% of the indigenous population in the Western Hemisphere was killed off.
Historical records show that the Great Plague of Marseille from 1720-1723 started when a ship called Grand-Saint-Antoine docked in Marseille, France, carrying a cargo of goods from the eastern Mediterranean. The virus spread quickly, and over the next three years, as many as 100,000 people died in Marseille and the surrounding areas, an estimate of 30% of the population of Marseille. The Russian plague from 1770-1772 ravaged Moscow, and the terror of quarantined citizens erupted into violence. By the time the plague ended, as many as 100,000 people died. In 1793, the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic was another major outbreak which ravaged mankind in the US. The disease was carried and transmitted by mosquitoes and killed more than 5000 people.
Flu pandemic in 1890, in the modern industrial age, spanned the globe, killing 1 million people. It took just five weeks for the epidemic to reach peak mortality. Likewise, the American polio epidemic in 1916 caused 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths in the United States. The disease mainly affected children and left survivors with permanent disabilities. The Spanish Flu in 1920 killed 500 million people, with some indigenous communities pushed to the brink of extinction. In 1957, the Asian Flu was another global pandemic with its roots in China. The virus that caused the pandemic was a blend of avian flu viruses and claimed more than 1 million lives.
In 2009, swine flu pandemic was caused by a new strain of H1N1 that originated in Mexico before spreading to the rest of the world. In one year, the virus infected as many as 1.4 billion people across the globe and killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people. Ebola ravaged West Africa between 2014 and 2016, with 28,600 reported cases and 11,325 deaths. In 2015, the Zika virus, which was spread through mosquitoes, affected South America and Central America and part of the southern United States (source: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
The social media saga
Based on the above historical record, it would seem that epidemics and pandemics have always existed, but the difference today is that their progress is tracked, circulated and individually interpreted with social media at hand. Since social distance is a condition prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to combat the COVID- 19 spread, social media tools such as Zoom, Cisco Webex, WhatsApp, Facebook, Google Meet, Twitter and the like, are seen as the safest platform to communicate. Social media helps in overcoming the social distancing constraints during mass quarantine, and provides moral support to confined and stranded people.
For instance, WhatsApp video calls have been helpful to share funerals with geographically dispersed family members in order to accompany the deceased in their last journey. As such, communities and societies remained connected with social media and valuable information was disseminated to overcome anxiety, fear and panic caused by the pandemic. Online businesses like the production and sale of face masks also started up while educational institutions engaged their students through online classes and webinars. Business, entertainment, fitness and religious programmes were also effectively disseminated through social media. Finally, the plight and progress of each country were circulated online and the world was seen as one community and one identity supporting each other to combat the pandemic.
From the other side of the coin, it is observed that people are bombarded so much with information from unverified sources that they are prone to message distortion and harmful stereotypes. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the entire social media landscape, with many platforms becoming inundated with information and misinformation. Social media misinformation may be more harmful, when people accept forwarded messages and form an opinion without verifying the source.
For instance, the stigma attached to China arising from the perception that COVID-19 is Chinese is mainly caused by insufficient knowledge from media consumers who forward unfounded messages without understanding the implications associated with the content. Within weeks of the emergence of the coronavirus in China, misleading rumours about the origin circulated the globe and created a stereotype on China and Chinese people.
Likewise, in Japan, the hashtag #Chinese-Don’tComeToJapan has been trending on Twitter and in Singapore, thousands of residents signed a petition calling for the government to ban Chinese nationals from entering the country. Such type of stereotype was mainly created due to misinformation circulated among media consumers who forwarded unfounded messages. Social media information needs to be intelligently managed, understood and then forwarded, failing which it can create stereotype, panic and paranoia among the population.
Besides panic and paranoia, racist content spread through social media also sparked communal war, thus reinforcing pre-existing biases and prejudices. For instance, the story of the superspreaders in India which led to stigmatization of the Muslim community was mainly caused due to insufficient knowledge of the context. The so-called Chinese born coronavirus was suddenly converted to Muslim. Rumours were in circulation that coronavirus was spread through a public gathering of the Muslims and WhatsApp was extensively used to propagate those messages according to Times of India, the local news channel. Moreover, The Guardian reports that hashtags such as “Corona-Jihad”, “Corona-Terrorism” and “Corona-Bombs-Tablighi” were forwarded and tweeted to the mass without considering the communal implications. Online messages need to be first understood and then forwarded, failing which they create social instability among the population. Forwarding fake news related to the region and religion of the coronavirus is even more harmful than the virus in itself.
Social media is certainly the appropriate communication tools for communities, societies and countries during a confined condition, but a degree of literacy is required to analyse media content and to correctly interpret messages. Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms (Gowreesunkar, 2013). Media literacy involves reading skills, critical thinking, analytical skills, ability to judge credibility of information, writing skills and the wise and effective use of media. The ability to choose and accept information and to interpret it appropriately is therefore the responsibility of readership.
According to the WHO, the coronavirus may never go away and it is not possible to predict how long it will keep on spreading (The Guardian, 15 May 2020). The key to combat and cope with the pandemic is therefore education, precaution and medication based on correct information. For instance, media consumers should avoid believing on COVID-19 cures that are circulated on social media, unless they come from a verified source.
From the business side, the study of Ferri (2020) shows that in general, social media platforms have taken an aggressive stance towards countering coronavirus misinformation spreading on their platforms. For instance, a number of social media platforms and famous international companies, including Google, Amazon, YouTube and Twitter, attended a meeting in early February hosted by the World Health Organization, at Facebook’s offices. The aim was to fight the “infodemic” of rumours, myths and misinformation related to COVID-19. Following the meeting, numerous platforms responded by setting up systems in an attempt to spread correct information.
For instance, Google launched an SOS Alert system which makes WHO coronavirus resources more easily accessible when “COVID-19” or “coronavirus” is searched for using Google. YouTube has added a banner redirecting users to the WHO web portal on all videos that discuss COVID-19. Facebook has additionally launched a “Community Help” feature where people can volunteer to donate to fundraisers. It has also banned ads and listings for medical-grade face masks and has given the WHO unlimited free ad space. Snapchat worked with the WHO to create filters that display facts on how to stay safe and social distance. These filters include reminders to wash your hands, cover your face when you sneeze and stay home. WhatsApp has worked with the WHO to create a Health Alert system that is designed to answer questions from the public about COVID-19 and provides prompt, reliable and official information 24 hours a day and worldwide. This feature has been made available in all six of the United Nations languages. The WHO also launched a similar system with Viber. WhatsApp has also reached out to numerous governments to assist with their efforts to provide accurate information to the general public. Multiple social media platforms have also added a banner that is displayed to all users directing them to their countries’ official COVID-19 websites.
It is true that COVID-19 pandemic has created a new mindset among people who have tendency to blindly believe in forwarded messages, but it is equally important to understand that any communication model comprises a sender and a receiver. The role of media, as the sender, is to inform and educate and not to stigmatise or dramatize and the role of the receiver is to analyse and understand the content of the message prior to forwarding to peers. During a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, social media need to be mastered and employed in a responsible way. Information circulated needs to be informative and not disruptive. Readership should develop media literacy skill so as to make realistic assumption and further educate others.
In the digital age, the time needed to analyze, assess and communicate information cannot compete with the instantaneous spreading of misinformation on social media platforms. Societies and communities worldwide should therefore avoid spreading rumours on social media; erroneous and misleading information cause panic and instigate communal bias. It is not the time to discuss the region and religion of the COVID-19 pandemic, rather it is the time to join hands and collectively fight it as one community and one identity.