Should we social distance from our social media?

Even for those who might have described themselves as social media sceptics, the coronavirus crisis

Even for those who might have described themselves as social media sceptics, the coronavirus crisis seems to be driving more of us to rely on it. Photo: Yui Mok / PA - Credit: PA

WhatsApp, Facebook and the rest are playing a central role in this crisis. EMMA LUCK asks if they help or hinder

Even for those who might have described themselves as social media sceptics, the coronavirus crisis seems to be driving more of us to rely on it.

People who were previously avowed technophobes have swiftly become devotees of apps like Zoom and Houseparty, while more established platforms like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook have taken on added significance.

The reasons are obvious: social media is connecting people at a time when literally nothing else is. These apps, all in their different ways, are providing lifelines, keeping people in touch with friends and family and combating loneliness.

At the same time, they are helping to educate and inform. Users are bombarded with various public safety messages, about washing their hands, staying indoors and – when not – how to maintain social distance.


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Social media is also helping in more targeted ways – getting specific messages around local communities and encouraging people to work together. Facebook, for instance, is awash with community campaigns, established to check on the vulnerable, help with shopping and medical supplies and make sure local needs are met.

There are other practical roles being performed by these platforms too. For the beleaguered children of the UK (and to the relief of their equally beleaguered parents), it has enabled them to enter virtual classrooms to continue their learning from their living rooms. It is also helping people to keep active and healthy, with exercise and cookery classes of every variety now available.

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And there is another incredibly important role which should not be overlooked: humour. Social media platforms are brimming with witty pictures, videos, playlists and jokes. Cynics might sneer, but the uplifting feelgood factor these generate has been hugely beneficial to our mental wellbeing and resilience.

Social media has done plenty to boost morale and provide shared moments that lift and unite the country through this crisis, in a way that TV has, thus far, failed to do. It was social media which was at the forefront of the 'Clap for Carers' initiative, for instance.

So there is plenty of to be thankful to these platforms for in these challenging times. But there is also an undoubted flip side to them too. While social media is doubtless helping to get important messages disseminated, it is also helping to spread less helpful ones. Fake news and hoaxes were a problem long before this virus came along, but have taken on a particularly sinister aspect now.

One message quickly went viral on Facebook describing a self-check for Covid-19. It stated that people can test themselves every day by attempting to hold their breath for 10 seconds. If they could do this without coughing, discomfort, stiffness or tightness, it was claimed that they did not have the virus. The test – which has the capacity to seriously mislead, with severe consequences – has been discredited by medics, but not before it travelled widely around the world.

Less malign, but also damaging for some, have been the many anecdotal, anonymous reports circulating online from medics describing the conditions that they are facing in hospitals. The testimony may be genuine – it is impossible to tell – while the underlying message for people to stay indoors is certainly helpful and the desire to retweet and share them is entirely understandable. But is the anxiety, fear and panic they provoke in many people really necessary or constructive? For some, perhaps. For others, perhaps not.

Social media can also hinder rather than help in other ways – for instance in fuelling the 'panic buying' sprees we saw earlier in the crisis.

When well-meaning people censoriously tweeted pictures of empty supermarket shelves to condemn so-called 'panic buyers', they surely only added to the problem, encouraging other well-meaning and otherwise responsible people to race out to stock up before it was too late. In reality, the actual number of 'irresponsible' panic buyers was perhaps relatively low – more common was surely those who became anxious at all the reports and photographs and feared being left with nothing. But that was not the impression given on social media, where there must always be someone to blame and an online posse rounded up to blame them.

Indeed, the pandemic has produced an outbreak of public shaming not seen since white feathers were handed out during the First World War. It started with panic buying but has continued with controversies over people getting their regular daily exercise and keeping the appropriate social distance.

These are trying times for everyone. Most people are doing their utmost to live within the bizarre new rules. But you wouldn't get this impression from much of social media which has divided the world between those adjudged to be behaving in the right way and those not – 'Covidiots'.

There are, of course, some people who deserve to fall into this category. But there are many who are incurring the wrath of social media simply because they are interpreting the rules differently while trying to do their best.

It is not easy to know exactly what the proper course of action is. Just ask MP Stephen Kinnock, ticked off by South Wales Police – on Twitter, of course – for visiting his father, former Labour leader Neil, on his birthday and sitting apart from him.

For many of those online, the new rules – and apparent infringements – offer an opportunity to indulge long-standing pet hates, whether against dog walkers, joggers, cyclists or Labour MPs. Sometimes, those being shamed are being singled out because we can't identify which group they belong to.

Social media has been groaning under the weight of photos and footage of crowded Tube trains and platforms – the inference being that everyone travelling is a Covidiot, regardless of how many might actually be key workers. It is not always easy to spot a nurse, a binman or a supermarket shelf stacker on their way into work, not that social media seems to care. Shame is the game. 'But it helps to spread the message,' say the shamers. But a lot of situations are more nuanced than the shamers allow. Is all this enthusiastic and sometimes vicious online 'policing' really helping to keep public order and maintain national morale, or is it just dividing people?

One problem is that social media has not had time to recover from the Brexit era (whether it ever will is another matter). That deep schism still hasn't healed online. People are still divided pretty neatly into groups of like-minded followers, with similar 'blocked' lists. Not much crosses between bubbles and social media responses follow party and political lines. So at on the one hand the news of Boris Johnson's illness is met by his online opponents with glee. And on the other, Jeremy Corbyn's participation in the 'Clap for Carers' is dismissed by his critics as showboating and grandstanding.

There are certainly a number of Twitter accounts which have emerged to give neutral, dispassionate advice and commentary on coronavirus. But the platform's loudest voices are still those with an opinion. And, frankly, we need science and advice more than opinion right now.

So, there's good and bad to social media in the coronavirus era. At its best, it unites like little else can at the moment. At its worst, it divides, stirs anxiety and sows confusion. It must come with a strong health warning then. And a suggestion that users exercise due social distancing from its downsides.

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