Social media and lockdown – problem or opportunity?

Friday 09 October 2020

Professor Sarah Pedersen
Sarah Pedersen, Professor of Communication and Media at RGU's School of Creative and Cultural Business, explores how social media has been used during lockdown – and has its use been problematic or helpful?

On the negative side, concerns about fake news about COVID-19 circulating via social media have been highlighted by academics and governments across the globe. Indeed, the Director of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros, remarked that misinformation about the coronavirus might be the most contagious thing about it. In April, the CoronaVirusFact Alliance database recorded nearly 4000 Coronavirus-related hoaxes circulating globally, while in the UK an Ofcom study suggested that 46% of internet-using adults saw false or misleading information about the COVID-19 virus in the first week of the country’s lockdown. In recent weeks, scientists have spoken out about the pressures they have felt from social-media attacks, which have impacted on open scholarly debate about scientific approaches to the pandemic.

While social media can allow wide dissemination of news, government policy and opinion, it is clear that it also amplifies misinformation and give it equal status with truth. There are also well-founded concerns that current levels of information are producing an ‘infodemic’, which makes it difficult for members of the public to identify the most reliable information, particularly as rules about lockdown become more complex.

Of course there has also been a more positive side to social media in lockdown. Local Facebook groups have ensured that those vulnerable and shielding have been able to reach out for help with shopping, accessing medication or simply to communicate with others. Social media and communication tools such as Zoom have been able to present themselves as essential for helping families and friends keep in touch. Businesses have also had to adapt to lockdown, and have used social media to add a personal and local touch, showing a human side in their responses to the pandemic.

Social media has also allowed humour to creep into the nation’s conversation. Sometimes this has helped governments’ messages, such as Janey Godley’s voice-overs of Nicola Sturgeon’s briefings, which have served to reinforce the First Minister’s warnings while also producing a slightly different persona for Sturgeon. At other times, however, memes and other satirical takes on the news have undermined government policy, such as the many memes referencing Barnard Castle and eye tests after Dominic Cummings travelled north during lockdown.

What is particularly interesting about lockdown for a media scholar is the impact it has had on our use of and trust in mainstream media. Research in the US, and some of the research we are undertaking at RGU, suggests that lockdown has led to somewhat of a return to reliance on legacy media such as radio and television news and newspapers. Radio listening boomed during early lockdown as listeners tuned in for the latest news, but also for companionship and entertainment. In comparison, the use of music-streaming apps such as Spotify dipped. Television news likewise saw audience numbers rise with BBC news, for example, reaching an audience of more than 20 million a week across its evening news bulletins in March. The BBC’s news website also broke records, with its most popular video explaining coronavirus being watched more than 50 million times that month.

However, the story is not as simple as the public realising the worth of mainstream media, forsaking social media, and returning to their old habits of media-use. Instead we now have a much more complex picture of hybrid media use. We are accessing and sharing clips from BBC news or stories on newspaper websites via social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Thus clips from news television programmes or articles from mainstream newspapers are presented to us within different framings, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, depending on the comments attached by different posters. We might see the news and opinion we are accessing via social media as a kind of palimpsest – a piece of writing that has been over-written and altered by the writings of others that have accrued over time. And because of the way in which social media allows us to syphon away information and opinion that is contrary to our own beliefs, we tend to access news articles that support our own opinion on subjects such as mask-wearing or holidays abroad.

As ever, the answer to the problem is to do your own research, to make sure that you take your news and opinion from a variety of quality sites, not to share on social media information that you do not know is correct or personal information you wish to keep private, and to challenge information and advice that seems to be dangerous or abusive in some way.

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