Coronavirus and Social Media Vs. Government Sources
by Betsy Burton
Do You Rely on Social Media or Government for Coronavirus Information?
At the end of 2019, Aragon Research released a list of our major 2020 forecasts (see Aragon Research’s Top 10 Predictions for 2020). In this note, we included a prediction about how young people will relate to their social network compared to how they will relate to their UN-recognized nation state:
By 2025, 60% of citizens under the age of 35 will relate more to their social network nation-state than their UN-recognized nation state (70% probability).
The primary point of this prediction is that we’re seeing younger people connecting to each other around common interests, concerns, issues, and opportunities to such an extent that they end up feeling more aligned with that cross-border social group than with a specific national identity. We cited a 2018 Harvard youth survey that found that young people had a higher level of trust in several social media sites than in the U.S. Government (“Fall 2018 National Youth Poll,” Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, (2018)).
Interestingly, we are seeing this prediction come to light as governments and social networks share information about the Wuhan coronavirus. In this blog, we explore this trend by considering some of the ways governments and individuals are responding to the current coronavirus outbreak.
Government Leaders as a Source of Information
Clearly, there are people in government organizations that are working tirelessly to address the prevention, care, and spread of the coronavirus. The CDC, for instance, is covering the spread of the virus, providing actionable prevention advice, and also providing detailed information for medical professionals.
However, there are government leaders all over the world who are struggling to inform the public in a way that does not cause panic. At the heart of this struggle is the issue of declining public trust in government. This is especially clear as we notice publics around the world identifying their leaders as lying, misleading, or obfuscating the current status of the coronavirus and its potential long-term effects. For instance:
So, where are you going to find information when you don’t think you are getting the full story from government leaders?
Social Media Becomes an Alternative Source of Information
Many people are turning to online sources and social media to get reports from fellow citizens, medical professionals, nonprofits, and reporters directly in the areas being affected. People may want to learn about coronavirus diagnosis, coronavirus transmission, or about the possibility of a human coronavirus vaccine, but find government sources lacking. Some alternative sources of public health information available now include:
- John Hopkins University has posted a dashboard that includes consolidated data from U.S. CDC, European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, and the World Health Organization. It also integrates data from DXY, an online system of Chinese medical professionals.
- Citizen journalists living in the Wuhan region have been posting images and videos for weeks. Oftentimes, they report about the struggling/failing medical response, at times even putting their own health and safety at risk.
- Several medical professionals have posted videos and blogs regarding coronavirus and tips for protecting yourself.
The challenge is that there is as much misinformation on social media as there is valuable information. In fact, a series of myths have emerged on social media, including the myth that coronavirus could be caused after tears made masks ineffective, or the myth that it was caused by eating bat soup. The list goes on.
In some cases, social media platform providers are posting messages redirecting searches to trusted sources of health information. For example, a Twitter search of #COVID19 or #coronavirus will redirect the search to a trusted resource such as the CDC or a medical research source. However, there is not a consistent response from social media companies. Some social media websites choose to allow good information and misinformation to coexist, while others are making some efforts to try to reduce or remove blatantly incorrect information.
Individual Citizens Are Between a Rock and a Hard Place
It is important to recognize that the coronavirus is only an example that illustrates a broader point. As we predicted last year, global social media groups are beginning to outpace official government sources as the information individuals rely on to make informed decisions in times of crisis. The media situation that surrounds coronavirus is a symptom of this dynamic, not its first case.
Individuals are both social network citizens and nation state citizens. And in many cases already, people relate to and align more with their digital nation than their legal one. We have found that this is especially true for global issues and crises surrounding climate, health, political unrest, and the environment, a trend that we predict will only rise in the near future.
Neither UN-recognized or social media nation states are perfect as a source of information around the coronavirus or any other event.
- With the amount of incoming information, citizens must develop a critical eye when gathering information and must find multiple reputable sources.
- Social media platform providers must recognize that their customers will turn to them more and more as a source for information, which may have existential implications. This is an increasingly serious responsibility, which means social media platform providers must develop proactive and transparent policies for dealing with critical information.
- Government leaders must also recognize that they bear great responsibility for the proliferation of misinformation and confusion. If they expect social media platforms to take action to responsibly deal with and reduce misinformation, so must they.
In general, those looking for public health information about the Wuhan coronavirus should go beyond only social media and government sources to find highly reliable sources and form a broad, integrated perspective.