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Social Media: A Commitment to Being Right, Not a Commitment to the Truth

Source: BBC

Around this time last year as coronavirus was rapidly spreading throughout the corners of the world, social media began to respond. When any major world event happens in the 21st century, rest assured social media will respond. With posts, memes, discussions, and arguments from comment sections to DM’s. But with coronavirus, everything has felt a little different. A situation that too many news anchors and politicians have described as “unprecedented” (I mean, can’t they find another word to use by now?).


From early on in the pandemic, I started to see information being shared about the origins of the pandemic and its validity on various social media platforms. I began to read these theories that seemed increasingly prominent on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. These theories ranged from the more common conspiracies, that the real cause of the pandemic was caused by 5G, to more ridiculous theories like Bill Gates and Tom Hanks operating a Satanist pedophile ring and how Greta Thunberg created coronavirus to tackle climate change.


Of course, conspiracy theories are nothing new. There are, and will always be, conspiracy theories and people who resist believing the “masses” and indeed the government. But what made this difference was how common these theories were and how people from all walks of life seemed to be buying them. I was shocked to hear a few people in my life say that they believed the pandemic was the government seeking to gain more control over their population by secretly chipping us under the guise of a vaccine.


Simply put, one of the biggest issues with social media is how easy and quick it is to share facts that simply aren’t true. We would like to think that our friends and family are the exception to the rule and are more enlightened, but unfortunately, we are all guilty of doing this at some point. When someone we know and trust posts something that seems genuine (and can have thousands if not millions of ‘likes' and shares), few of us actually check the source of the claim and check the facts, every time. It is the time that we don’t check that a lot of false information can spread around the internet.


As a journalist, I must admit that in the past, even I have made the mistake of sharing something I later realised was inaccurate because the person who shared it was a reputable journalist and the post had been shared thousands of times. A few months ago, I saw a post shared everywhere on social media. It was a screenshot from the UK government website where it stated, “Vaccine Damage Payment; a tax-free, one-off payment of £120,000”. However, it was edited to look like this was only for the coronavirus vaccine. On the actual website, there are over nineteen other vaccines this applied for, including measles and tetanus. What social media often lacks but desperately needs is context.


This isn’t an issue constricted to coronavirus. I see posts all the time and statistics shared by intelligent, well-meaning people up to millions of times where the information just isn’t true. What happens if you dare to inform someone of their error? Most of the time it will end in a confrontation or denial of the facts just like the one I had recently with an influencer who was posting anti-lockdown and Bill Gates conspiracy theory rhetoric (see below). As the Donald Trump saga showed us all; the sharing of misinformation on social media platforms can have very real and dangerous consequences for our society.



 

  

Attention-grabbing headlines with sensationalist content can attract even the savviest internet users and studies have shown they tend to generate more user engagement” Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 


 


When it comes to vaccines, social media has had a detrimental role in creating doubt and fear over the only answer we currently have to a way out of this pandemic. That isn’t to say, that those who are skeptical about the vaccine have never been right before - there is always some risk in taking any vaccine, just like there is driving a car or crossing the road, but it is incredibly rare.


After the UK’s drug regulator approved the Pfizer vaccine (the most effective one to date), thousands of tweets erupted on Twitter comparing the vaccine to thalidomide, a sedative that was given to pregnant women in the 1960’s and caused thousands of children to be born with birth defects. Most importantly, those behind these tweets forgot to mention that this tragedy was behind the changes that were later enforced including reforms and regulatory systems that keep people safe.


Some may say that anti-vaccine movements have always been around and that they won’t impact mainstream efforts to vaccinate the global population, but there are lots to speak to the fact that social media has been directly responsible for resistance to the vaccine. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) warned that the misinformation of vaccines being spread on social media could seriously affect the effectiveness of the vaccination program. In December, an Ipsos survey found that only 40% of people in France would agree to get vaccinated. In the UK, the CCDH (Centre for Countering Digital Hate) found this to be one in six. This survey also found that those who got their information on the pandemic from social media were more likely to not want to get the vaccine.


“Anti-vaxxers have been responsible for promulgating a series of fantastical rumours and conspiracy theories about coronavirus vaccines…Other false claims are that RNA-based vaccines like BNT162b can alter a recipient’s DNA and that the shots will contain tissue from aborted foetuses.”


-Dr. June Raine, Chief Executive for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the UK


Even more worrisome, the CCDH also found that social media companies allow “Content personalisation algorithms [to] repeatedly expose people to the same or similar content and ads even on the basis of disinformation”, meaning that social media companies are allowing those most likely to be influenced by certain misinformation to be plunged even deeper into their echo chamber. Social media giants have taken steps to take a stand against the misinformation sharing of vaccines on social media, but have continually been criticised for effectiveness in real life and the consequences of an increase of censorship of any kind and its implications for free speech.


A paradox is also created where those who are sharing and believing conspiracy theories believe that censoring the information they are trying to share on social media proves the establishment is panicking and that these theories are in fact true. Vish Viswanath, Professor of Health Communication in the Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Harvard said to The Lancet “De-platforming makes me nervous… “This is an issue of freedom of speech…Shutting down conspiracy theorists and campaigners, risks making them into martyrs and could even lend credence to their arguments that they are speaking truth to power.”


I believe that much of the social media drama over coronavirus and the vaccine only further highlights the distrust many have with both the mainstream media and the officials that we elect to represent us. Populism, the rise of the far-right in Europe and Trump’s presidency are all examples that there are large proportions of society who feel disconnected, unvalued and lost. Emilie Chabal said to Euronews of the French people’s resistance to the coronavirus vaccine, “The French public haven’t stopped believing in science. They’ve stopped believing in the state.” Life is always a matter of perspective and social media is no different. Unfortunately, a lot of what social media has come down to picking a side and vehemently sticking to it no matter how the information changes and the situation changes. How can we even have the chance to change when the algorithm only feeds us more of what we believe in?

 


Coronavirus deniers’ comments on an Instagram conspiracy page 

 



A new dimension that social media has exposed during the pandemic is our interactions with others and the way we have responded to other people’s behaviour and choices during this time. And this has played out with both our personal connections and with celebrities and ‘influencers’.


Throughout this pandemic, there have been many times where people have disapproved of each other’s behaviour. My take is that if someone is not breaking the law, they are absolutely right in posting whatever they want online. The breaking the law part is a big if. There is a certain type of arrogance that comes with not only breaking the law and restrictions but then also posting it openly online. So do not get me wrong, if you are someone who has hosted large parties, gatherings and broken the rules of the country you’re in and then posted it on your social media, yes, you look incredibly inconsiderate.


I unfollowed one person about six months ago because they not only continued to party while there was a lockdown in London but started hosting “secret parties”, encouraging large gatherings at a time where the NHS had never been so overwhelmed. I also think that influencers and celebrities have a responsibility due to their large following to act responsibly.


Having said that, if someone is in a country where they are permitted to meet up with a friend, or even have five people in their house — that is the law and why shouldn’t they socialise responsibly? Last summer there was a brief period where France (the country I was staying in) opened restaurants and bars. After spending over six months quarantined inside, I felt no guilt about going to an outdoor event with performances (outside, socially distancing and wearing masks). Following the etiquette of social media, I posted some videos of the performances and my friend and I having a good time. The next day I woke up to ten messages from different people telling me how disappointed they were that I would go out and how they expected more of me. A couple of people even unfollowed me. But I wasn’t breaking the rules, in fact, I refused to do anything inside or without a mask. So why the hate? There is a growing feeling that social media is becoming a space where its users are predominantly obsessed with cancel culture, being offended and hating others (and being pretty nasty about it) even if they make one mistake on one occasion. The pandemic has really shown this ugly, divisive side of social media and the fact that people tend to be a lot more confrontational and aggressive online with over 42% of young adults experiencing cyberbullying on Instagram alone.


This extends to the debate about celebrities and ‘influencers’. We live in a world where people get paid a lot of money to show off and rub our faces in their exclusive lifestyles. And we are not only okay with this but we actually bankroll these lifestyles by buying their skinny tea and waist trainers. It’s superficial, it’s shallow but it’s social media. Why are we deeply offended that Kim Kardashian rented a private jet and flew to a private island for her birthday? I understand that it’s crass considering the reality of so many people during this pandemic and again it’s different when it comes to breaking the law and traveling if your country forbids it - see 'Jet Setting Influencers Working Hard or Hardly Working?'.


But when you see people using social media platforms calling to “cancel” others because they live in Australia where everything has reopened, (with no active cases) and they go to the gym or when your friend who lives in Dubai goes out for dinner and posts it and then has people attacking them behind a keyboard, this is only causing us to be more divided and isolated at a time where we need each other more than ever. In that case, we should all get rid of our social media accounts and never post anything that may make others envious. If something triggers you and offends you so much you can unfollow that person. How much moral caliber should we really expect from Kim Kardashian and Love Island contestants in the first place?


While it’s truly unthinkable to imagine our lives without social media, especially during the pandemic where we have been spending more time on our social media accounts than ever before, there is no getting around the fact there are lots of issues. The ways in which social media has been used largely during the pandemic seem counterproductive and divisive. It has resulted in the mass sharing of false information which has had very real consequences for international vaccination efforts. It has caused division, judgment and hostility between people.


At the same time, like it or hate it social media is today a mirror of our society. Perhaps it would be wrong to blame social media itself and not the people behind it, for social media is nothing without its users. And it seems as if we are nothing without our lives online. Maybe, it’s time to take a long hard look at what we are becoming as well as how we interact with each other online. From what I’ve seen, social media could do with a little more fact over fiction, dialogue over hostility, and kindness over aggression.



Amira Gabarin 


A 23-year-old British/Palestinian journalist who has written for a range of publications including, The Telegraph, CBS News, and This Week in Palestine. She is passionate about charity work and human rights. In her spare time, she loves to horse ride, strength-train, and travel.     

 



Social Media: A Commitment to Being Right, Not a Commitment to the Truth Reviewed by Guest Writer on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 Rating: 5

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