September 18, 2020

As Politicians Are Still Looking To Destroy The Internet, Covid-19 Reminds Us Why Social Media Is Not Just Good, But Saving Lives

For all the fears and freak-outs over “disinformation” on social media, over the past few weeks Twitter, especially, has been an amazing source for getting accurate, thoughtful information regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and how to deal with it. It’s a pretty stark contrast, in fact, between people who seemed to be paying attention to credible voices on social media, and who began “social distancing” sooner, and those who were getting their information from politicians and television (especially cable news) who seemed to wave off the dangers for way too long. That’s not to say there hasn’t been disinformation about Covid-19 online — including some spread by politicians and crackpots. However, on the whole, social media has done what it does best: allowed credible, knowledgeable voices to rise to the top for many.

As Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason notes, COVID-19 Reminds Us: Social Media Is Good, Actually:

Social media have also been providing news from early outbreak zones across the globe, as users widely disseminate stories from foreign news outlets, statements from foreign leaders, and first-hand accounts from residents of affected areas abroad.

These snaphots helped give Americans a better sense of the scope of the threat posed by COVID-19 at a time when the messages coming from official channels were conflicting and confusing. They also illustrated the ways in which various social responses could play out—giving credence to calls here for “social distancing” and spurring measures to make room in medical facilities.

Around the U.S., communities still seem to be experiencing widely different reactions to the pandemic, with some areas seeing runs on grocery stores and empty streets while in others things look pretty normal. This will likely change rapidly, as more businesses close their doors voluntarily—and as more governments order them to close whether they want to or not. But for now, one thing that’s been noticeable is how quickly the mood on Twitter, Reddit, etc. embraced voluntary social distancing, especially in comparison to the mood in the “real world.”

The NY Times had a similar article, though with a bit more snarky a title, When Facebook Is More Trustworthy Than the President. Of course, Facebook is often more trustworthy than our current President, so that’s not unique. But it is notable that during such a crisis, people are able to get much more reliable information via social media.

All through February and early March, the voices of doctors and nurses on social media provided a vital antidote to those of confused and complacent political leaders embodied by President Trump. Their voices carried credibility and urgency in a way the always-on crisis of cable news can’t. They fed and were fed by credible journalism. And they helped force the United States to reckon with the crisis.

After four years in which social media has been viewed as an antisocial force, the crisis is revealing something surprising, and a bit retro: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others can actually deliver on their old promise to democratize information and organize communities, and on their newer promise to drain the toxic information swamp.

Elsewhere, it’s been noted that the first person to really spot the threat of Covid-19 was a blogger in Florida who tracks flu outbreaks (and, no, don’t ask me why the Washington Post put this story in their “Lifestyle” section):

The news seemed so intriguing — and so potentially alarming — that Sharon Sanders stayed up almost until dawn on Dec. 31 to keep track of it.

From her home in Winter Haven, Fla., Sanders began compiling reports of public comments by health officials in China’s Hubei Province. The officials, Sanders reported on her blog, FluTrackers, had announced an outbreak of an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases, caused by a mysterious virus.

The disease apparently had spread among merchants in a seafood market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. “A number of people from hospitals in Wuhan said that the current cause is not clear,” read one of FluTrackers’ first, uncertain posts about the outbreak.

As you may or may not recall, this was the original promise of the internet. It would enable anyone to get their voices out there, and that could allow more viewpoints and perspectives. Of course, that also includes ill-informed people or those with malicious or chaotic intent to get their voices out there as well. And over the last few years it’s felt that we’ve over-corrected on worrying about those people. But one key point that I think has become quite clear in the past few weeks is that for much of the public, the ability to parse through and determine who is credible and who is trustworthy, is a useful skill that still applies online, and has allowed many more people to inform themselves, rather than to mis-inform themselves.

Indeed, it appears that you’d receive a lot more misinformation just by watching the mainstream news acting as a stenographer for a President who is more concerned about how the crisis makes him look, than how it actually impacts the lives of everyone. Social media has always been a tool for getting voices heard — and part of that means that we, the users of social media, are taking on some responsibility to sort out the good from the bad.

But, most importantly, the events of the last few weeks show the importance of enabling platforms where people can connect and share knowledge, and we shouldn’t toss all of that in the gutter, as some in Congress are trying to do, just because there remain a small group of people pushing misinformation.
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