This article was originally posted on The Global and Mail here.
Medical health effects of COVID-19 are not the only thing we need to be worried about. The virus is spreading online and one only needs to look at the empty toilet paper shelves in the local supermarket and tumbling market to see the real-life consequences of a social-media panic taking shape.
In a crisis, accurate information from credible sources is a key factor in a successful outcome. But who arbitrates what sources are credible, and what information is accurate?
The world has been tested by pandemics before, yet never in a time where tweets, posts and TikToks spread “news” to the masses. What influences public opinion has changed. Despite the best efforts of institutions, their ability to control the message, or at least shape the narrative, may have been superseded by social-media platforms.
COVID-19 calls for a “Tylenol moment” from our leaders and institutions. Tylenol’s response in the 1980s to tainted packaging, which was recalled, became a gold standard for crisis management, featuring a mixture of swift corporate action and eventual government regulation. These were actions that were easily communicated to a society that got its news from TV and newspapers.
But in today’s fractured media environment, is a “Tylenol moment” even possible?
Social-media platforms have made strides though their actions may not be enough. Twitter and Facebook have committed to banning ads with inaccurate information and Google is directing search terms to verified public-health sites. Nevertheless, these services are still being manipulated.
Content that is interesting performs on social media. Facts are vital, but not interesting. Speculation and sensational copy beget clicks and shares. With organized and weaponized trolls, misinformation can seem like the currency of the internet.
Government is responding but it’s a monumental challenge. France attempted to dispel a rumour that cocaine cures the coronavirus, just as countries around the world have tried to put a stop to stories about the lotions, potions and powders that, according to your aunt’s most recently shared post on Facebook, might just offer some protection.
To add to the mess, one phenomenon all social-media platforms are grappling with is “dark social”: messages shared in private groups, WhatsApp or messengers. This is how most memes are shared, especially in younger demographic circles. It is also where some of the wildest theories and misinformation are spreading. Given privacy concerns, social platforms do not censor this material.
Even information that is not intentionally misleading or malicious can pose a problem. When accounts from Italy’s hospital front lines reach our feeds faster than local public-health updates, how do institutions shape, let alone control, a narrative?
The answer: Institutions must not only fight with sanitizer, but also for those precious few inches of screen space on your phones. They must also fight what the World Health Organization calls the “infodemic.”
What caused the infodemic? There are the usual suspects: algorithms, trolls and disinformation campaigns. But fundamentally, the traditional authority given to institutions in government, the media and medicine are on trial here. Long before coronavirus misinformation, anti-vaccine advocates found a home on social media. People mostly trust government institutions, but their messages are often drowned out by louder opinions or blatant misinformation.
Those who think we can fight back with press releases, podium statements and white lab coats will see themselves outgunned. Institutions must take the fight against misinformation to the place it lives: online.
Unsung heroes can rise up. A savvy doctor who connects and gets a big following. Or perhaps our hero will be Kylie Jenner, who shows us all how to wash our hands. For social platforms, it’s not just getting rid of fake news or amplifying credible sources. It’s making sure users understand the source, and making sure that sources with the reliable information outnumber bad actors.
It isn’t all bad news: social media can also be a force for good. Globally, videos of viral “hand washing” dances have emerged that work to engage young people. Those who have mastered social platforms may not be traditional centres of influence, but they play important roles in the global response and must be harnessed.
To fight COVID-19, we’ll need to win the battle for people’s screens.
Lindsay Finneran-Gingras and Dennis Matthews are digital communications experts who are vice-presidents at the public-relations firms Hill and Knowlton and Enterprise Canada.