Social Media: Bane or Boon during Pandemic?

The author of this blog is Ms. Saloni Jain, a 2nd year B.A.LL.B (Hons.) student at Institute of Law, Nirma University.


We have indeed been through a lot of pandemics but this is the first time when during pandemic the role of social media comes into the play. Because, social media started in late 1990s and after the commencement of social media this is the first time we are facing pandemic like situation, so we will try to concentrate more on the present crisis. The outbreak of Coronavirus is posing a serious menace to the whole world. As the novel Coronavirus keeps spreading, so is the dubious information about its origins, but the zoonotic source of SARS-CoV-2 is still unknown[1]. 
The mysterious outbreak came to light on 31 December, 2019 when it was first reported in Wuhan, China[2]. The skyrocketing cases of Covid-19 have made people to stay at home in order to save lives. During this unprecedented crisis, the use of social media has indispensably become the part of daily activity. The very purpose of such platforms is to ease worldwide communication, access and spread information and to make the best possible decision. Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram are some of the widely used social networking sites and their usage amid lockdown has significantly increased. These social media sites bestow a powerful and efficacious means of exercising ones fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. However, practicing these rights comes with its own consequences. Especially, when everyone across the globe is going through extraordinarily sensitive circumstances.

Times of crisis are always special times for misinformation and propaganda and the more derisive the claim it seems, the more attraction they gain on social media. Be it claims like extreme weather condition inhibits the transmission of Coronavirus, or tips like consuming alcohol to kill the virus and fight the disease or religious claims like Corona is a punishment dished out by god or mother nature, for some people all of these outrageous affirmations may be tempting but these sayings are just a myth. The more people will believe it the more they are going to undermine the trust in health authorities. People tend to easily believe such fake news because they are designed to be that way as it plays with their emotions and easily ties with their brain. The social media platform seems to facilitate and multiply “coronavirus infodemic”. Hence, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), noted that urgent measures needs to be taken to address this issue[3]. This infodemic compromises outbreak response and escalates the public confusion about who and what information origins to rely. Also, it may give rise to fear and agitation due to unverified reports and claims that are blown out of all proportions. Social media has sparked a rising tide of racism and xenophobia all over the world. Instead of using unbiased and scientific language like “coronavirus” and “Covid-19,” people are posting online about the “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” or the “Kung Flu” . They are attaching the race or location to the disease which is leading to stigmatisation. The cases of harassment, defamation, eviction, rejection and attacks on Asians and Asian-looking people have spiked up. These networking sites are flooded with their ethnicity being targeted as a virus. Posts claiming China’s conspiracy theory or lab-accident theory are being rapidly circulated backed with no proof, giving rise to misconceptions and anti-Chinese sentiment. Such speculation may have even imperil the working relationship between Western scientists and their Chinese counterparts searching for a COVID-19 vaccine. The hate speech continues despite pledges by Twitter, Facebook, Tik Tok to tackle issue. On Facebook, dog-whistle or utter racist language can be seen on pages, in groups, but also in ads. Tens of thousands of posts are hash tagged with such terms on Instagram as well, driving things towards racist forms of digital vigilantism and scapegoating.

Social media acts as one of the strongest tool when there is need to forewarn people about something extremely serious in a really quick manner.Whether it be the news of COVID-19 from individual states or news concerning the whole nation, social media gets the message where it needs to go. Dr. Li Wenliang, The first doctor to notify the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak used Social media to warn people about this disease. The Chinese government tried to censor the online content and created an information vacuum. Nevertheless, people used social media to open up concealed criticism of government mismanagement and lack of government accountability. News of his death led to the stimulation of messages demanding free speech and information transparency from the government. It is the social media and the outrageous messages that apprehended the government about their deed. Social media can help us to not feel so alone while social distancing. It certainly helps people to stay informed, amused, consoled and keep their spirits up. Also, social media has provided a platform to coordinate donations, get the much needed entertainment, seek help, come up with innovative solutions to all the challenging problem that we are presently facing. It is interesting to see a lot of athletes, celebrities and influencers urging people to take the information coming from the officials seriously, making them aware about the gravity of the situation. When such high profile figures quarantine themselves, it makes people more inclined to follow the instructions that are being given.

When in pandemic like extreme situation pressing issues and questions arises and seek instant response. The problem is that the concerned authorities don’t emphatically provide the accurate information that is well reasoned and with strong evidence to support the statement. This way it can differentiate itself from all the dubious medical claims or misinformation. There is need to make people accountable for what they say and post, many social media sites have started doing this by eliminating the accounts spreading misinformation. Officials should carefully craft their statements instead of making unreasonable propositions.This will ensure the accuracy and defer pitfalls of misinterpretation and amplification. The effect of social media hoaxes, exaggeration and rumours may be even more apparent because of confirmation bias, the propensity to believe statements that supplement our underlaid views and to downplay statement that contradict these views. To combat fake news government should concentrate more on schooling, citizen engagement and rely less on legal hammer. There is need to strike fine balance between law, literacy and technology to ensure lies don’t spread and lies don’t worsen the situation. Pandemics will demand synchronised global response action plans and social media lies at the heart of these action plans. Since the response and inclination of social media to engage with government and public health officials will resolve whether social media should be seen as a profitable or pathological vector of pandemic effect. At present. It is of vital importance to form policies and procedures that plead the digital creation and spread of misinformation about disease outbreaks. To do this will require that biomedical knowledge about pandemics be supplemented by expertise about their social, political and cultural underpinnings[4].

The world has been turned upside down due to Coronavirus, this time of crisis may pass in a couple of months but things may never be the same again. Because, the kind of hatred that is being spread on social media by targeting specific ethnicities, there is a probability that people may stop embracing people from different races and cultures. It is important to not hinder the efforts to contain COVID-19 by spreading unnecessary panic and confusion among people and by driving division because solidarity and copartnership is the only way to save life and end the health crisis.

[1] World Health Organisation, Reducing animal-human transmission of emerging pathogens, Origin of SARS-CoV-2, (Mar. 24, 2020)

[2]World Health Organisation, Reducing animal-human transmission of emerging pathogens, Origin of SARS-CoV-2, (Mar. 24, 2020)

[3] Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organisation, address on COVID-19 ( Mar. 9, 2020)

[4] S. Harris Ali, Fuyuki Kurasawa, #COVID19: Social media both a blessing and a curse during coronavirus pandemic (Mar. 22, 2020, 8.21 AM),