Is social media responsible for spread of Coronavirus?

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Is social media responsible for spread of Coronavirus?
Is social media responsible for spread of Coronavirus?

Fake news in the time of Coronavirus have become the biggest challenge for democratic states. Is uncontrolled social media space is the main cause behind the spread of Coronavirus around the world?

Social media has always been at the center of all debates surrounding freedom of expression and the dangers of fake news in the 21st century. However, in the time of Coronavirus, the social media sites are facing pressure from democratic governments for not controlling fake news and from authoritarian regimes for being dangerously liberal. Experts believe that the coronavirus pandemic has posed new and bigger challenges for the social media companies as the use of internet increased manifold due to lockdown.

The biggest reputational risk Facebook and other social media companies had expected in 2020 was fake news surrounding the US presidential election. Be it foreign or domestic in origin, the misinformation threat seemed familiar, perhaps even manageable.

The novel coronavirus, however, has opened up an entirely different problem: the life-endangering consequences of supposed cures, misleading claims, snake-oil sales pitches and conspiracy theories about the outbreak.

So far, AFP has debunked almost 200 rumors and myths about the virus, but experts say stronger action from tech companies is needed to stop misinformation and the scale at which it can be spread online. “There’s still a disconnect between what people think is true and what people are willing to share,” Professor David Rand, a specialist in brain and cognitive sciences at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told AFP, explaining how a user’s bias toward content he or she thinks will be liked or shared typically dominates decision-making when online.

Part of the reason is that social media algorithms are geared to appeal to someone’s habits and interests: the emphasis is on likability, not accuracy. Changing that would require Facebook, Twitter and other such companies to alter what people see on screen.

Prompts urging users to consider the accuracy of content they are spreading on social networks are needed, said Rand, co-author of a study on COVID-19 misinformation that was published earlier this month.

Deadly consequences 

Using controlled tests with more than 1,600 participants, the study found that false claims were shared in part simply because people failed to think about whether the content was reliable.

In a second test, when people were reminded to consider the accuracy of what they are going to share, their level of truth awareness more than doubled.

That approach — known as “accuracy nudge intervention” — from social media companies could limit the spread of misinformation, the report concluded. “These are the kind of things that make the concept of accuracy top of the minds of people,” said Rand, noting that news feeds are instead filled by users’ own content and commercial advertisements.

Rand further says that there probably is a concern from social networking companies about accuracy warnings degrading the user experience, because you’re exposing users to content that they didn’t want to see. But I hope by talking about this more we’ll get them to take this seriously and try it.”

What is undoubted is that misinformation about the novel coronavirus has been deadly. Although the US, French and other scientists are working to expedite effective treatments, false reports have appeared in numerous countries.

In Iran, a fake remedy of ingesting methanol has reportedly led to 300 deaths, and left many sicker.

Dr. Jason McKnight, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Primary Care and Population Health at Texas A&M University, said the sharing of false information has an impact beyond the immediate risk of the virus itself. “I have seen posts related to ‘treatments’ that are not proven, techniques to prevent exposure and infection that are either not proven and/or filled with a lot of misleading information, and instruction for individuals to stock up on supplies and food,” he said.

McKnight highlighted two types of danger posed by inaccurate information on the virus: that it “could incite fear or panic,” and “the potential for individuals to do harmful things in hope of ‘curing the illness’ or ‘preventing’ the illness.”

Experts believe that social media sites must take appropriate measures in order to deal with the novel Coronavirus outbreak across the world.

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