How Social Media Has Turned a Pandemic Into an Infodemic

By Kyra Hanson

In times as stressful as these, people are concerned about the health of themselves and their community, uncertain about the future, and demand information more than ever. As a result, many people turn to social media to access news updates, such as information on where the virus has spread, how many people it has killed, or what steps are being taken to keep people healthy. Social media can serve as an incredibly helpful tool for education in these times. However, it can also be used to spread rumors or fake news like a wildfire, which causes additional stress, fear, and misinformation. 

The Director-General of the World Health Organization stated: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” This is a very apt description of the current situation. While the pandemic is clearly the biggest current threat, this “infodemic” also brings its own share of danger. 

One primary factor contributing to the “infodemic” is the circulation of conspiracy theories. In times of panic, uncertainty, or confusion, some people choose to make sense of what is happening by creating or believing conspiracy theories. Often times, these conspiracy theories place to blame on someone else. Blaming is a way to put the pressure on someone else so that you don’t have to feel any form of responsibility in the situation. In the case of the Coronavirus, some of the most prevalent conspiracy theories are that the virus is a weapon of biological warfare and was created by China to kill U.S. citizens, or vice versa. Furthermore, there is the belief circulating that the virus was created to unseat China from its throne in the high-tech manufacturing market so that another country could fill that space. 

Another source of misinformation about the virus is simply clickbait. When a topic is as trending as the Coronavirus is, sources of faulty information know that they can profit off of the popularity of this topic. They do so by posting articles that share shocking “news” about the virus, which encourage people to click on the article for more information, which therefore profits the source of the clickbait. 

One specific example of this is multiple teen bloggers who claimed to be infected with the virus, even though there were not. This served multiple purposes – it shocked their viewers into paying attention, elicited pity from anyone who read about their situation, and ultimately garnered a lot of attention towards their online brand. The practice of purposely contributing to panic for personal gain is incredibly unethical and is detrimental to the well-being of society. 

Despite the discouraging nature of these misinformation practices, there are people working to improve the validity of Coronavirus content online. Trusted organizations such as WHO are able to use social media as a tool to inform the public about all aspects of the outbreak, as well as control the panic as much as possible. The absolute best way in which to avoid misinformation on social media is to pay close attention to the source. In times of great misinformation like these, it is best practice to only trust credible accounts, such as public health organizations or high-caliber news outlets like NPR or The New York Times. 

Furthermore, there are many companies that are taking an active role in dispelling the misinformation already circulating online. Different platforms are dealing with this issue in different ways. WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging and social media platform, is using fact-checking tools to verify the truthful information and eliminate the lies. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are using their algorithms to combat misinformation. Accounts that are trusted and post accurate content are given priority in the algorithm. Therefore, when someone searches for the Coronavirus on these platforms, they will have higher chances of finding accurate search results from trusted accounts, and lower chances of accessing faulty information. 

Overall, there are many sources of misinformation on social media that cause undue fear, panic, and baseless opinions on the Coronavirus. However, social media platforms are using fact-checking tools and algorithms to fight back and try to deliver as much accurate information on the virus as possible. Each and every person has a role to play in fighting back as well. Do not believe every post that you see about social media. Make sure to check the source and the research that backs up the claims before you believe any of the information. Be attentive and be critical so that you can be accurately informed in this pandemic and stop participating in the infodemic.

This Article Has 10 Comments
  1. Kyra Flynn says:

    I do agree that social media is a great tool that can be used to help distribute important information on the virus such as how people can avoid it, where it is currently spreading, etc. However, I do also agree that it can be very toxic in the sense that fake news is spread every single day and it may be hard for some to distinguish what is real and what is fake. Additionally, the way in which many news outlets has portrayed this virus has sparked a great amount of panic worldwide. It is important that people are careful when reading any sort of information distributed online to avoid this infodemic that is ultimately causing chaos.

  2. Ramsey Sullivan says:

    This topic is so relevant I’m glad you talked about it! My roommates and I were just talking about the conspiracy theories behind it. There’s so many, it’s hard to keep up. Social media can be such a great tool in so many ways but I agree that it can sometimes cause unnecessary stress or paranoia. The movie “Contagion”‘s trailer says “No one is immune to fear” and I think that fits very well here. Some of my coworkers have told me they have stopped checking their social media because it has impacted them negatively. I’ll be interested to see where social media takes us as we continue watching this pandemic.

  3. Chase Ford says:

    This is very insightful and true. I saw one recent post about Pinterest when you search COVID-19 the only results are from credible websites. I think in a time like this that is something that needs to be done. While it may not be feasible to moderate every post, social media websites can create a space with credible and accurate, updates and precautions.

  4. Josie Ruff says:

    This post was actually helpful. I am happy to know that social media platforms, which at times do not seem to be doing much to combat misinformation, are stepping up in this time of crisis. Everyone in the world is talking about this. I know I am reading everything I can find on the topic. Your post is a good reminder to be wary of sources and look for leaders who will be spreading the truth.

  5. Taylor Lancaster says:

    I am so glad that you decided to address this topic! While I do understand the severity of this virus and the awful impact that it has had within communities, I also feel that social media has contributed to people’s panic. With continuous posts on social media every few minutes, many of these conspiracies and stories are only adding to people’s overall fear and hysteria. I think that it’s important for us at this time to be very conscious about what news we deem credible and to remain calm.

  6. Tylar Blansett says:

    It is a huge relief to hear that social media platforms are stepping up during this crisis. This is obviously the most talked about thing in the world at the moment and there are people who are speaking the truth and then there are people who are just looking to get likes and shares on their social media. Social media platforms have a lot of power in the world and with the crisis happening, people are scared and are more likely to believe a less credible source and then spread the fake news, then to seek out the truth.

  7. Zach Newsom says:

    I was extremely skeptical of the COVID-19 pandemic and definitely feel that media/social media has pushed the conversation towards panic due to the lack of REAL information out there and the promulgation of theories, false information, and rumors. Now with everything shutting down, it’s clear the pandemic is a real issue. However, I feel that there is a danger of too much information, especially false information.

  8. Lauren Cheever says:

    Social media is definitely a powerful tool and I am interested to see how the globalization of information will change over the next few months following the Coronavirus outbreak. It is fascinating to be able to watch people’s reactions online and almost seems like a social experiment at times. It is also interesting to me that this is happening right before the election, where last time the spread of misinformation was the leading topic of discussion. I am looking forward to seeing how this experience will effect the upcoming election and how the president will respond through social media.

  9. Anthony Ebel says:

    Hey Kyra,

    Totally agree with you and this topic has been on my mind a lot lately. I feel like there are so many sources of information coming in across different platforms and it can be difficult to tell what’s true and what is a hoax. False info, rumors, panic… It’s all relative. I fear that the threat of misinformation is more harmful than the actual virus itself and people continue to panic. In the end, I try to pay attention to the credible sources versus the random who want to state their “truth” on social media.

    Stay safe!

    -Anthony

  10. Connor Nolan says:

    Nice topic Kyra,

    It’s definitely been a huge problem that brings me back to the whole ‘fake news’ conundrum around 2016. This use of an international pandemic for clout shows how tasteless some social media accounts are. It’s scary because there is a legitimate need for monitoring the accuracy of these posts, but how can we accomplish that without leading into censorship? For the time being, I believe we all just need to be savvy consumers, make sure we are only reacting to trustworthy news sources, keep calm and carry on from there.

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