A stark difference between the outbreaks of 2019 Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is the major influence of social media in society. To put it in perspective, the social media behemoth and pioneer Facebook was only established in 2004. Mainstream media played the pivotal role of disseminating concise and accurate information to advise the public. However, this is hardly possible these days as social media takes control of narratives in the public conscience. 

The global media impact on the Coronavirus

Originating from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the virulent strain has forced the Chinese authorities to issue a travel lockdown in a bid to contain the spread. Residents and visitors are still stranded in the city as medical and scientific faculties scramble to find a vaccine or antidote. The disease has claimed more than 1,000 lives (as of 11 Feb 2020) in the country and on the final day of January, the disease’s virulent nature pushed the World Health Organisation to declare a global health emergency. With the escalating numbers of cases exported overseas in multiple countries, the virus raised alarm bells and countries began announcing nationwide bans on travellers who had been in China for the two weeks prior. 

The insurmountable number of social media channels pervade the public and ultimately causes concern to governments and authorities in maintaining order and dispelling any panic from citizens and visitors. The sheer volume of content produced in social media reveals that it is not viable to eradicate or curb misinformation in the minds of people. Numbers from Meltwater’s Explore tool show that in the month of January 2020, there were around 21.7 million mentions of coronavirus in both mainstream and social media, an average of 712,000 mentions per day. To sieve through all of those mentions would be an attempt of futility. Table 1 shows the exponential increase of coverage on the virus and this is the battle that authorities have to face in a crisis such as this.

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Recently, Facebook announced that it would double efforts to fight against the scourge of fake news permeating inaccurate information on the virus. And the danger posed by fake news is apparent when a recent Google Trend blog post revealed a high number of search queries directly linking the virus with the Mexican alcoholic beverage Corona Beer. A wry smirk might show up on our faces but this insight reveals the menacing danger when people are misinformed on serious cases such as this. Other cases include bogus remedies of drinking bat soup or bleach to cure the coronavirus. Meltwater’s Explore discovered that there were more than 50,000 direct mentions of the virus and Corona Beer in January. Twitter users have to repeatedly point out that there is no link between the two vastly different things.

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The media’s role in battling misinformation

In a critical moment like this, facts and truths must be verified and disseminated to the people so that they can take the appropriate measures and actions. This is where the media’s role becomes unquestionably important in blanketing the channels with factual reportage. Major media entities with reputable standing with audiences are integral in sending the correct messages. Meltwater’s Social Echo measurement demonstrates the full impact of editorial efforts on social channels. The feature tracks the total number of posts, reactions, and comments related to the article on Facebook, as well as the number of times the article has been tweeted or retweeted on Twitter. It enables authorities and policymakers to focus their PR strategy on publications that deliver the best audience engagement via social channels. 

For example, the BBC’s article on the WHO’s announcement of the global health emergency was the report with the highest Social Echo in January. The article was shared 24,213 times on Twitter, 881,219 times on Facebook and 1,768 times on Reddit. An article by the BBC has an estimated reach of 13.2 million readers. These statistics represent an avenue for the authorities to convey their messages around the world. A high Social Echo score increases the probability of understanding and acceptance within the society. With entities such as the BBC and The Guardian, their reputations put them at the forefront of journalistic integrity and as a trusted source to amplify messages.

In China alone, there have been over 120 million media mentions surrounding the outbreak. The biggest challenge faced by citizens is to identify accurate information in a sea of opinions and misleading news. That is why platforms such as Ding Xiang Doctor (丁香医生) have been praised by many for actively dispelling rumours. Ding Xiang Doctor is a health information exchange platform based in China that has been providing in-depth and informative coverage of the epidemic. A trusted voice by Chinese citizens, its impact on calming fears of citizens and providing clarity during this period of turmoil cannot be overstated.

 

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Creating awareness through the media

Apart from finding a cure to the virus, education and awareness become the key actions in the fight against uninformed reactions from the public. With sustained coverage and delivery of factual reportage of information and advisories, the public will gradually understand the rationale of the authorities in enacting certain measures. Efficiency and effectiveness of the measures depend on the public’s cooperation and knowledge of the crisis. 

For example, this virus crisis has emphasised the need for general hygiene and social practices. Surgical masks and hand sanitisers have become necessities in demand. Authorities constantly publish information on how to correctly use masks to improve its efficacy and reiterated the importance of personal hygiene. This information seems to have filtered down to the public domain. Masks, sanitisers and personal hygiene filled the Social media conversation space. There were more than 275,000 mentions of the protective measures and it became a sense of civic duty to inform others in social media. 

Meltwater’s Explore highlighted a particular Twitter post by Joel Tay which received the highest rate of engagement in social media. The quirky post was retweeted more than 153,000 times and had 258,000 likes. The young Twitter user took upon himself to introduce the different versions of masks that could be worn to combat the virus. The post also took a light-hearted take on facial masks and explained its irrelevance. Tay also credited the Facebook group which created and shared the informative poster, further expanding the network of information. Befittingly, information and knowledge on how to fight the virus can be as viral as the disease itself. This reflects how society can use both mainstream and social media to influence behavioural patterns in people through discursive information.

 

Helping One Another Through Facts & the Media

Caution must also be taken when such a powerful tool like social media is accessible to anyone. Contrarily to Tay’s civic-mindedness, another individual may take a stance which breeds contempt and ill-will in the social media realm. Misinformation on the coronavirus outbreak may accelerate panic amongst the public. People blame the origins of the disease and this does not help to alleviate the problem. These actions are counterintuitive in finding solutions to eradicate the problem and help those in need. 

During desperate times such as this outbreak, the human spirit needs to prevail and communication becomes key in finding ways to help one another during a crisis. The media is a vital bridge between people so that factual information can be shared across nations. The first step on that bridge is to reinforce the credibility and responsibility of major media outlets to deliver the correct messages to the people. Subsequently, knowledge and awareness of the audience to examine the integrity of questionable sources will help nullify the adverse effects of fake news. In doing so, we will be able to successfully cross that bridge with courage and cooperation from everyone with the help of the media’s role in calming fears.

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