The Coronavirus is the Initial True Social-Media “Infodemic”

Social networking has zipped information and misinformation around the world at unprecedented speeds, fueling panic, racism … and hope.
On January 19—a week prior to the Lunar New Year—Tommy Tang left Shenzhen with his girlfriend to see her family in Wuhan for the holiday. They’d been aware of the novel coronavirus (now officially referred to as COVID-19), but in terms of they knew, it was localized to a tiny area. The neighborhood government had assured people that it would only affect those that visited a particular food market and contracted it directly from wild animals.

But on the night of the 20th, Dr. Zhong Nanshan—exactly the same doctor who first revealed the extent of SARS in 2003—went on national TV to improve the record. The virus could spread from person to person, he said. Panic ensued. Overnight, everyone in the town began wearing masks. Tang and his girlfriend realized it was no more safe to stay. They cancelled their plans and left on a train the next day. Less than 48 hours later, the town went into lockdown.

Back Shenzhen, they placed themselves in a 14-day quarantine, leaving their apartment only one time each day, with masks, to get the trash. Tang, whose family also lives in Shenzhen, couldn’t join them to celebrate the holiday. He wished his mother Happy New Year through his apartment door peephole. He ordered sets from food to soap and toilet paper through delivery apps like Meituan Waimai and Dada-JD Daojia. On the next day of quarantine, Tang went right into a panic when he opened the apps to see everything completely sold out.

“There clearly was nothing there—there were zero vegetables,” he says. “But compared to Wuhan, we have it extremely easy,” he adds.
A lot more than anything, the greatest supply of anxiety has been the tortuous process of watching the headlines unfold on social media. It has mirrored and amplified his fears to levels he’s never experienced before. He and his girlfriend have suffered insomnia and multiple panic attacks. They are terrified of contracting the virus and about her family’s well-being.

“Honestly, it is hard to spell it out what happened over these 14 days,” he says. “There’s nothing to do but read the headlines, and the headlines gets worse every day. That’s the hardest part for individuals outside.”

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On February 2, the World Health Organization dubbed the newest coronavirus “a massive ‘infodemic,’ ” discussing ”an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that means it is hard for folks to locate trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” It’s a distinction that sets the coronavirus apart from previous viral outbreaks. While SARS, MERS, and Zika all caused global panic, fears around the coronavirus have been especially amplified by social media. It has allowed disinformation to spread and flourish at unprecedented speeds, creating an environment of heightened uncertainty that’s fueled anxiety and racism in person and online.

For its part, the WHO has attempted to handle the issue by partnering with Twitter, Facebook, Tencent, and TikTok to clamp down on misinformation. It recently launched a Google SOS alert, for example, to push WHO information to the very best of people’s search results for coronavirus-related queries. It has already been dealing with Facebook to a target specific populations and demographics with ads that provide important health information. It has even gone so far as to reach out to influencers in Asia to try to keep disinformation at bay.

Social-media and health organizations also have engaged in efforts of these own. TikTok has tried to remove purposely misleading videos, saying in a statement that it would “not permit misinformation that might cause harm to our community or the more expensive public.” Facebook has additionally worked to scrub posts with dubious health advice, and Tencent, who owns WeChat has used its fact-checking platform to scrutinize coronavirus rumors circulating online.

But the sheer avalanche of content has overwhelmed the coordinated efforts to clean out all of the noise. This in turn has created a breeding ground for xenophobic content. Racist memes and slurs have proliferated on TikTok and Facebook. Some teens have even gone about faking a coronavirus diagnosis to earn themselves more social-media clout. This online toxicity has additionally translated into in-person interactions. Asians have faced outright racism and harassment, and Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants have experienced business lag.

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Similar degrees of discrimination have been reported (link in Chinese) in China against individuals from Wuhan and the more expensive Hubei province. In some cases, those who are stranded because they were traveling throughout the lockdown are being denied rooms in hotels once their national IDs reveal their hometowns.

But around social networking has perpetuated disinformation, it’s been a significant supply of verified information as well. Journalists around the world used Chinese social networking to get an even more accurate picture of the situation and gathered and archived (link in Chinese) verified reports for posterity. The amount of personal anecdotes and reports that circulate every single day about the floor truth in China has additionally pressured the us government to release more accurate information regarding the crisis.

In early days, for example, several doctors took to social networking to boost alarms concerning the severity of the situation. Though the government swiftly reprimanded them and moved to regulate the flow of information, their warnings went viral, likely accelerating the us government to be much more forthcoming concerning the reality. Later, when one of many doctors, Li Wenliang died from the sickness, Chinese platforms lit up having an outpouring of anguish and rage, questioning the government’s decision and authority. The discontent was so pervasive that it thwarted censors.

Such social-media activity may be mined in the future to catch and track future disease outbreaks. Several services already are using these techniques to help public health officials monitor the coronavirus’s progression. Raina MacIntyre, a biosecurity expert at the University of New South Wales, published a write-up in January in the journal Epidemiology that unearthed that hot spots of tweets could be good indicators of how a disease spreads. “Especially where there is censorship or lack of resources for disease reporting,” she says, this may help organizations react even earlier during a viral outbreak , stopping them before they become global health emergencies.

In a strange way, social networking has additionally become a space for collective grieving. On Weibo and WeChat, stories of despair and kindness abound. Alongside expressions of fear from people stuck in quarantine and from patients struggling to receive treatment will also be anecdotes of people donating (link in Chinese), volunteering, and helping one another in unexpected and generous ways.

“Those personal stories—you don’t read them a great deal in international coverage of the outbreak ,” says Shen Lu, a surgeon located in Boston who has been following Chinese social-media activity around the coronavirus closely. But they have become a significant way for people to check out the crisis both within and outside China, serving as a questionnaire of catharsis and giving people, amid all of the panic and toxicity, a tiny ray of hope.

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Author: Karen Hao - Tanya Basu

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