Whatsapp. YouTube. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter.
None of these services existed in 2002 while SARS gripped world headlines. When H1N1 reared its head in 2009, most were in their infancy and weren’t yet the pivotal gateways to information they have since become.
It would take the Arab Spring of the early 2010s to demonstrate social media’s potential in fomenting revolution and broadcasting citizen journalism. And it would take the US’ 2016 presidential elections to expose the widening fault lines between truth and misinformation.
With the coming of Covid-19, the first global pandemic to hit in the golden age of social media, we are witnessing the full bloom of its wondrous and destructive powers. Thanks to social distancing, widespread quarantines and a broader climate of uncertainty, people now seek digital connection with unprecedented zeal.
Staggering volumes of content are being created, thanks to the disruptions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, and emotions have heightened considerably. Debates about accountability, responsibility, and ethics swirl through the Internet in link, meme, and caption form.
Given current events, it would be tempting to make glib comparisons between social media’s incessant (re)production cycles and, well, actual viruses. Glimpses of celebs singing ‘Imagine’, world leaders stoking xenophobia, and panic-buying grocery shoppers spread like wildfire.
Having said that, it is worth noting that not all viral media makes us sick; there is plenty out there to warm the heart. To name but two examples, healthcare experts worldwide have formed online groups to share emerging knowledge from the frontlines, and Folding@Home’s medical researchers are crowdsourcing record numbers of PC users’ spare processing power to run vaccine simulations.
Money Talks. Are You Listening?
In the current age of algorithms, few things go viral accidentally — virality is usually a combination of intent and algorithmic amplification. That’s why it’s worth examining why people and corporations are driven to make things go viral online.
For companies such as Instagram and YouTube, the incentive is simple: profit.
In recent years, platforms’ avarice has manifested in the abuse of user data, unfiltered promotion of incendiary content, and funding emerging from dubious origins (think Facebook’s Cambridge Analytical scandal), leading to accusations that social media platforms have shown inadequate concern for societal wellbeing. The coronavirus pandemic, with its attendant fake news and fear-mongering, is further straining public trust.
Some platforms have fared better than others in their response to coronavirus hysteria. Earlier this month, video-sharing service TikTok partnered with the World Health Organisation to share prevention tips and to dispel myths about face masks.
Facebook, by contrast, copped flak for lapses in its content moderation policy, after in-office moderators were sent home and replaced with AI counterparts. AI moderators are as yet inefficient, typically unable to differentiate between, for example, decrying racism and racism itself. At a time where level-headed discourse is more vital than ever, Facebook’s motives are once again under scrutiny.
While the decision to socially distance workers is clearly in the interest of public health, some have speculated that they were not allowed to work from home to avoid compromising the security of Facebook’s user data and algorithm.
That most platforms’ proprietary algorithms, which determine what content soars or crashes into oblivion, remain opaque is a major part of the problem.
Everybody knows that emotionally-charged, sensationalist content boasts the greatest viral/engagement potential, which in turn generates revenue for social media companies. Unfortunately, it is often those who desperately seek confirmation of faulty biases that are engaging most with dangerous content. During this process, they permanently reshape the algorithm in their image.
Whether or not this was a platform’s original intent is unimportant. The current model of virality as a profitable end in itself has damaging consequences, and companies’ ongoing minimisation of responsibility is deplorable.
Writer Kate Losse proposes that the coronavirus pandemic is a turning point for social media: “The imperative for outward social engagement, for constant striving to expand one’s “reach” and “influence” — both of which in their embodied form are now medically hazardous — has been effectively cancelled.”
In short, the coronavirus may prove that there are indeed limits to our patience for mistrust, anxiety, and emotional manipulation. Losse further posits that “this virus may pose a more existential product crisis. What if networks don’t grow all the time? What if, like trees in winter, people and societies need repose, closer and smaller “reach,” and a periodic refusal to sprout their networks bigger and broader than yesterday?”
If a less compulsive and extremist social media landscape is what’s needed, one thing is increasingly evident: the industry’s titans will probably not be the ones to deliver us there.
The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions
Then there’s the individual’s role in all this to consider. Why are people so keen to hop aboard bandwagons?
Although it’s easy to take cheap shots at earnest corona-content oversharers, there’s a deeper psychological aspect to virality which transcends reductive accusations of narcissism. Most people mean well, but their unchecked impulses may do themselves and others more harm than good.
The content volume and speed of social media, combined with the topicality of coronavirus, has led to some perplexing behaviour.
Despite having her viral tweet about swans ‘returning’ to lockdown Venice’s now-unpolluted canals debunked by National Geographic, Kaveri Ganapathy Ahuja hasn’t unpublished it. Personal-best engagement aside, in Ahuja’s mind the desire to spread positivity (however false its origin) outweighs the harmful effects of misinformation.
In troubled times like ours, social media can trigger anxiety, relieve tension with humour, uncork frustration, and cultivate solidarity. Whether we’re presented with facts (e.g. helpful infographics on how to properly wash one’s hands) or more subjective stimuli (e.g. videos shaming people who panic-buy or fail to observe social distancing), our responses are invariably emotional.
Compulsive sharing of such content often overrides our better judgement. Fact-checking and reflection go out the window, as the impact of an ill-advised post is easy to downplay. What’s a single racist meme or unreliable factoid matter, when there’s a whole galaxy of them online? To many, the reward of social connection — digital or otherwise — is justification enough.
This could go a long way in explaining why our cultural debates have become so polarised and venomous. When called out for irresponsible behaviour, it’s not just one’s beliefs that fall under threat; it’s also the wider sense of community that now substitutes for a psychological support network, crucial for survival.
Our habit-forming, virality-conducive dependence on social media is more glaring than ever thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Without vigilance on the part of both corporations and members of the public, things will only deteriorate.
It is time to distance ourselves from the black-and-white, all-or-nothing mindset which has made social media companies billions, and left society fractured in separate echo chambers. Now excuse me, while I post a link to this story (with gratuitously hashtagged captions imploring others to share, natch) on all my socials.