COVID-19 Reminds Us: Social Media Is Good, Actually

Will coronavirus help rehabilitate tech's rep?


It's almost hard to believe now, but there was time when Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of "participatory media" were widely heralded as great gifts to public perception and global democracy. For going on nearly half a decade now, the tone on tech companies and social media has shifted to one of suspicion, hostility, grievance, and moral panic. But as COVID-19 continues to spread around the world and as many governments continue to mishandle things, people are starting to remember why the platforms we love to hate are important after all.

"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," noted Ben Smith in The New York Times yesterday.

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 outgiving 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."

Some will suggest that this has bred unnecessary fear, and perhaps time will bear that interpretation out. But the overall mood doesn't seem to be one of sheer panic so much as people helping people by sharing their own experiences.

We've seen people's frustrations about the futility of trying to get tested in early outbreak areas, spilling over into stories of how academics, philanthropists, and private companies are all pitching in to overcome bad federal planning with regard to not just tests but other crucial items. People sharing homemade hand sanitizer recipes, tips on where to find stocked store shelves, links to local places that needed donations, ways to help elderly loved ones or neighbors prepare, and guides on how to tell COVID-19 symptoms from common colds. People informed one another (albeit not always in the nicest terms) on how asymptomatic people can spread the coronavirus, why "flattening the curve" matters, and how to help America's disease curve look more like South Korea's than Italy's.

We've also seen people shaming crowds still physically gathered at bars and social venues. Much of this has taken too stern or smug a tone for me; I think it's important to remember that as of a few days ago, leaders were still widely advocating that those without symptoms keep patronizing local businesses (an idea officials in some communities are still pushing). Not everyone has been getting the same steady diet of escalating horrors that the extremely online are. Nonetheless, the social shaming is arguably serving an important function now too, as long as it stays away from singling out individuals.

Now that state and local governments are ordering businesses to close early or entirely, social media will fill another important function: documenting police attempts to enforce these rules. Unfortunately, curfew and quarantine enforcement inevitably mean new opportunities for police overreach, profiling, and violence. The best hope Americans have of lessening this is YouTube, Instagram, and other sites that make it easier to bear witness.

"After four years in which social media has been viewed as an antisocial force," Smith suggests, "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." He talked to leaders at these companies, plus Pinterest and Snapchap, about how they have been handling coronavirus misinformation.

Misinformation still abounds on these platforms, of course. But so do opportunities to correct itat least in a relatively free society. The president himself may be among those downplaying the disease's seriousness, but anyone with a Twitter account can publicly push back at him. In China, where government tightly regulates digital platforms, we've seen authorities use social media to spread damaging propaganda that citizens aren't allowed to dispute.

Meanwhile, technology and digital media companies are playing another important, if somewhat less lofty, function: providing entertainment, diversion, and a non-disease-spreading social outlet to the increasing number of people electing or forced to stay in. It is, at least, the best of all times to be stuck at home.

No single social platform or user-generated content company will ever be perfect in terms of fighting the right battles and avoiding the wrong biases. Nonetheless, in times of crisis and change, they're truly revolutionary and vital.

It's probably naive to think any of this will affect the politically-driven efforts to impose controls on tech companies, clamp down on privacy technology, and suppress online speech. But the COVID-19 pandemic should remind us why it's so important to fight those forces.

NEXT: Coronavirus Epidemic May Be Slowed by Warm and Humid Weather

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  1. Hot take.

  2. Got your TDS dig in even though Trump has done more than most other countries excluding China but we don’t want the same violently force quarantines and the spraying of everything with whatever chemical they are using there, but orange man bad.

    1. I have multiple tear barrels just for unreason staff.

      The tears will flow like the Nile after he gets reelected and more and more people agree that he is the best president in US history.

  3. This would be an excellent time for the tech giants to start aggressively deplatforming its problematic users.

  4. During the first hour or two of the Camp Fire. which eventually wiped out the town of Paradise, all the “reverse 911” calls and emergency notifications, including the response from those staffing emergency call centers, failed completely. By the time officials actually got on board to the reality that there even was a fire, a whole LOT. The hospital in Paradise (most of which also burned) called me forty-five minutes after the fire started, wondering where the fire was, while I was just leaving to drive through flames to escape. They had not been informed of the fire, either.

    The only notification we had that there was a fire at all, came via a Facebook poster. If not for him, and a neighbor, who was working on his tractor, and spotted the smoke, I might not even be here to write this. Heck, and I don’t even have a FB account, but my wife does.

    1. I grew up in Paradise before it was incorporated. Went back a month after the fire. My mother sold the old family house and it was torn down and turned into two duplexes. One was still standing, unharmed, within 20-30 feet of our old house; every other house within a couple of blocks was a pile of ashes. Stratton’s Market — ashes. The elementary school — ashes, but the intermediate school right next door — intact. Closest I will ever get to true surreality.

      When I bought my current rural house, I made sure of escape routes. Four or five ways out of here, the freeway is only 6 minutes away. Facebook and twitter are indispensable when fires are near, and just about everybody pays attention to neighbors.

      1. Yep. I lived in the Concow area. At that time there were between 400 600 homes thereabouts. About an hour or so later, about 45 remained. My fire-hardened (that turned out to be a joke) octagon home, was literally obliterated. I had just spent ten grand knocking down every tree, as well as all the brush and grass, for about seventy-five yards around my house. The only structure which survived was my pump house. I currently live on the very green, and moist, Oregon coast.

      2. Twitter was invaluable during the big floods that hit colorado back in 2013. I work for a major technology and news company, and there was NOTHING about the floods for a week. There was nothing on any of the 24 news networks other than a small blip at the top of the hour. And even the local news stations were pretty bad. This was because all the traditional news companies have people concentrated in one area- even the local news was largely about what was happening in Denver.

        But citizens were going to local sheriffs departments and using their phones to record what the sheriff was saying, and sending it out on twitter. We were able to determine which country roads were damaged and which were not.

  5. Twitter banned messages linking the Wuhan flu to the Chinese government, so no.

  6. this is quite a take. I would argue social media is a net good but sort of caused a massive hysteria that probably could have been avoided.

    1. They’re in cahoots with toilet paper companies. All of their marketing data that they collected revealed that people will freak about about water and food, but the ability to wipe their assholes was their biggest concern.

  7. It’s almost hard to believe now, but there was time when Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of “participatory media” were widely heralded as great gifts to public perception and global democracy.

    They’re garbage. People who like them like garbage. But that’s just the way it is.

    1. Like everything else, they are just tools which can be used wisely or stupidly or dangerously. Society has already adjusted to them in part, and will continue to adjust. The tools themselves have adjusted, are adjusting, and will continue adjusting.

      Garbage they are not, any more than Guttenberg’s invention ever was.

      1. They’re garbage and anyone who tries to defend them is literally worse than Trump.

  8. Quoting Ben Smith is a sign of extreme TDS. Also Reason was downplaying this for a long time and criticizing the president for stopping travel from China and Europe. So now praising the far left for allowing us peons to use their social media garbage is the height of hubris.

    1. If Trump only had been able to quarantine all foreigners and Americans traveling from Cornoavirus hotspots, the ramp up of confirmed cases might be lower.

      The few thousand people coming to the USA could have been quarantined on an island with food and water airdropped. Anyone who recovers can enter the USA proper.

      Anyway, we are now in progress of a mild flu-like season in March and April but the hysteria to get rid of Trump is the worst disease.

  9. >>great gifts to public perception and global democracy

    nobody thought that ever. power-mad kids figured stumbled into *really large* herd-think and the fences held

  10. Social media can generally suck while the users themselves are mostly ok.

    Both can be true.

    I guess it’s just the online version of the herd vs. the individual. The herd is prone to stampede even while the individuals see the danger of the stampede.

  11. No it will not. The coronavirus in fact drove home to me that two companies can control every piece of news I recieved about the virus. Twitter and Google have both made special banners that pop up when you look up the virus and any misspellings of the virus. It was a visceral show that big brother is watching and taking steps to control the userbase information flow. If either decided to go the shadow ban route of censorship, I’d likely never even realize they had.

  12. “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,”

    Laugh riot, right there.

  13. Social Media Is Good, Actually

    HAHA. Media hacks, crappy actors, and their fans are the main people that use Twatter.

    1. I would take this article over “Covid-19 is destroying the economy and sex workers are being hurt the most.”

  14. The tools of social media can, I think, prove remarkable useful here.

    But if the vehicle is the BigTech platforms like FB – instead of a massive move to some local alternative tool….oh crap

    This is exactly the window of opportunity for protocols not platforms. Short-term isolation from even our neighbors at least has the possibility of remaining credible/accountable later and eliminating the mass manipulation that the big platforms earn their money from.

  15. “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…”

    This is just horseshit. I have never seen a travel ban (multiple) ever enacted so quickly in my lifetime. And I have never seen the degree of mobilization done so quickly as we have here.

    Social Media has a role to play. For our collective sake, I hope it is with a semblance of responsibility.

    1. I have never seen a travel ban (multiple) ever enacted so quickly in my lifetime.

      You weren’t around for the grounding of all air traffic within hours on 9/11?

  16. Social media is now good again? What changed? I can be an even bigger piece of shit much easier now that everyone is freaking out.

    In a time of panic I can still create an account, post “Is there any truth to the rumor that…” and then people just take it as fact and in 30 minutes not only is the rumor true, but it’s taken on a life of its own.

    Sorry, but social media is still a steaming turd.

    1. in 30 minutes not only is the rumor true, but it’s taken on a life of its own.

      But enough about CNN.

      1. Social media allows us all to be Don Lemon.

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  18. Seriously… Any of you still not understanding the possibly severity of this situation need to get your head checked. I’m in Seattle, with Covid-19 symptoms, and am not supposed to leave my house until they cleared up… I’m trying to get tested, but it’s a cluster fuck.

    Anybody who can understand math should realize if we don’t get a handle on this shit it’s going to be a major fucking disaster… So far it is FAR from being handled correctly.

  19. While I would agree with most of the actual content of the article, the headline could have been better chosen for sure. One issue not touched upon in this article is how the design underlying social media services encourages addictive behaviour.

    Another are the many ways in which constant but shallow interaction have negatively affected people’s lives. Social media is no doubt one of the reasons (though most likely not the only reason) that has led to the drastic increase in depression among young people. It encourages a shallow lifestyle in which one’s apparent social value is given the largest priority and in which honing that social image takes priority over an authentically lived life.

    While it has its benefits in some niche ways, well described in this article, it is important to remember that social media is overall a force of harm rather than good, which makes the headline even more aggravating.

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  21. I first saw the videos on Youtube from Chine shot by people and posted using VPN’s to hide their identity. I was stunned by what I saw, but the press was fixated on impeachment. Before Chinese New Year I posted on my Facebook page, emailed friends and colleagues, contacted my Senator and alderman urging them to cancel the week long Chinese New Year’s.
    I had no idea Europe and Asia would block Chinese tourists from entering. That we would let in tens of thousands of people and do little other than check their temperature. I already knew it could take 30 to 40 days for the illness to show. I knew this was a useless, uninformed gesture.
    I predicted that after March 6 the entire nation would have a very different view of the virus. That is exactly what happened.
    At my monthly libertarian study group when I said we had to cancel Chinese New Year’s and block tourists from China, the response was outrage. “You can’t be a libertarian and say close the borders”. I said battles must be picked, pushing for personal freedom is going to replace open borders because no one is going to listen to just letting Chinese in. Are we to be like objectivists in an ivory tower pontification to a small audience, or do we want to influence government and society?
    So far we are dealing with everything, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks which means we have no plan. We will try throwing money at the problem, punishing citizens, blaming everyone.
    But the problem is still China. Hospitals have no soap or toilet paper. The government would rather spend hundreds of millions on propaganda making socialism look good than on teaching hygiene. The street markets which lack refrigeration and are never inspected is where these viruses will continue to come from.
    The problem remains China.

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