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What To Believe About Covid-19 On Social Media

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As many school districts across the nation close and go to online learning to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the economy opens and closes their doors repeatedly, social media groups and comment sections are becoming a battlefield for intense discussions, and arguments over whether such measures by the government are warranted.

Such conversations are just one way that social media is both offering a window into our collective response to the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as shaping our reaction in the first place. As Covid-19 spreads in the U.S., social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which barely existed during past major outbreaks, are facilitating important conversations about the virus, while at the same time allowing misinformation to spread. This level of real-time information at our fingertips can give us the tools we need to make smart decisions, but also make us more anxious about what’s to come.

The optimistic view is that social media is useful at a time when many of us are otherwise isolated from one another. If it weren’t for these platforms many would be out of touch with what’s going on in the world. Conversations around the Covid-19, especially those at the community level, can help us navigate through this crisis. The discussions are helping to reflect how society is thinking and reacting to the crisis. But for every expert trying to share accurate information there are millions of users spreading rumors, propaganda and sensationalism. At times it’s difficult for anyone to decipher truth from rumor. Differentiating between the two can cause anxiety and be exhausting.

With contradictory information about COVID-19 and politics emerging from the highest levels of government, disinformation experts say it’s more important than ever for those with accurate information to be heard. That’s unfortunately easier said than done. The algorithms of the web that shape what we see on social media typically promote content that garners the most engagement. Posts that draw the most engagement get popularity. Experts say that model is partially responsible for the spread of misinformation online, since shocking, emotional and controversial content is especially, whether right or wrong, good at getting people’s attention. This same model factors in to how search engines rank this information and list it on Google, Yahoo and search engines alike.

Fairly recently platforms have started taking an aggressive stance toward countering Covid-19 and political misinformation. But even these efforts are misleading, as content spreads faster than these platforms can fight it. More effective efforts to regulate false content would require a much larger investment of resources on the part of social media companies.

Beyond serving as an arena or community forum, experts say social media is actually changing the way society is perceiving and responding to the Covid-19 outbreak and politics surrounding it. People can be influenced by other people, and in some cases may be more likely to buy in if they see other people posting their beliefs versus reading an article from a well-known or less credible media source. Some experts say a healthy dose of fear might be just what we need during a potentially world-altering crisis like this. A moderate level of sensationalism in such messages could increase user engagement. When such messages are combined with useful and accurate information that assists people with protecting themselves or diagnosing symptoms, the combination can become a very powerful message, and result in extensive sharing and engagement across all platforms and the population.

So to conclude, while some may feel that social media is a deterrent in fact finding, it’s actually a valuable tool and without it we would rely solely on other means of dissemination of information such as TV or Newspapers, which compared to online reaches far less people.

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