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Use Social Media to Fight COVID-19

6/04/2020 at 6:00 AM

Sambit Pal and Dr. MrinalChatterjee

The idea behind a globalised world has been to gain from each other’s’ resources in the production process. Be it the capital or the raw material or the labour, the nation-states collaborated with each other to utilise the best possible resources and trade the products accordingly.

Advancement of technology and communication expedited the growth of globalisation in the modern world. First, the telephone and then the World Wide Web entangled the population of the world in a true ‘web’. If the invention of the telephone and television brought the people from all across the world closer, the internet and mobile technology brought them to each others’ fingertips. The communication became so easy that people have actually started to believe that the world is one village.

The recent outbreak of coronavirus has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Several countries including India are taking drastic lockdown measures to fight one of the worst public health battles in recent times. This process has not only impacted the global product and services supply chain but also disrupted the human movements as the barriers have been put up by different countries. The global economy has been put into the mercy of nature and as economists predict- there is little hope that the situation would change until the deadly virus is contained and measures to prevent it has been found.

Unlike the 2008 global recession, except for our Prime Minister NarendraModi who tried to build regional cooperation using almost-defunct SAARC platform in South Asia,no world leader has yet come forward calling for global collaboration to fight coronavirus menace. Almost every country has been trying to fight the virus on its own. Under-funded WHO has been struggling to build a global collaboration, but those efforts seem to have not touched the world leaders yet. 

There has been a sharp increase in infectious diseases in recent times that has taken the shape of epidemic or pandemic. Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002, H1N1 in 2009, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012, Ebola in 2014 and Zika in 2016 are some of the diseases that have killed people and caused huge disruptions in the interconnected world.

However, the virtual world or to be precise the internet-mediated communication channels are raising hope for a new phase of globalization at this hour of crisis. Social media (which includes social networking or microblogging sites) is the virtual platform where people gather online to share information, knowledge and opinion and converse with each other. Social media enhances the conversations among the people across the borders and has the power to generate trending topics of discussion that can lead to a movement. Be it #OccupyWallStreet or #MeToo or Greta Thunberg’s call for action on climate change, it has been an important tool for garnering support for the issues and creating a global movement around them.

Social media has also helped in the detection and prevention of infectious communicable diseases too. There have been many efforts by the public health organisations like WHO or Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, to use social media to disseminate health information, emergency advises and communicable disease control especially after the H1N1 influenza pandemic. WHO thinks social media can be used as a tool to inform the public about disease risks, interventions, to encourage a healthy lifestyle and promote health policies. This also works as a surveillance tool during the public health crisis.

Twitter, the micro-blogging site, has been used by the international bodies as well as individuals, non-profit organisations, professionals, public health experts, medical practitioners and national health institutions to fight the public health crisis. The common people have also gathered relevant information from the social media site as discussion around the burning health issues gained momentum in a globalized, borderless virtual world.

During the recent Coronavirus outbreak, Twitter has been used as a tool to disseminate information, updating the situation and exposing the ground realities. Though there are various challenges like massive distribution of misinformation and disinformation on the social media as it is mostly not filtered by professionals and being termed as ‘infodemic’, the microblogging site has been at the forefront of discussion over the Coronavirus crisis.

This system has worked better than the traditional surveillance systems and facilitated the process of informing the public and the government about the health hazards. The web-based data sources can be available outside the traditional reporting channels and that is why these are used by the public health agencies which try to rely on prompt information flows across national and subnational borders. The internet and social media are turning out to be an important medium for clinicians, public health practitioners and people seeking public health information.

Like marketing and financial predictions, data analytics and data mining of social media are being used by the researchers for public health. Twitter postings have been collected by the researchers to track and predict infectious diseases like influenza. Some researchers have manually examined a large number of tweets to show that “self-reported symptoms are the most reliable signal in detecting if a tweet is relevant to an outbreak or not”. These are the evidence that social media can provide data that helps identify early warning for public health threats.

The power of Twitter in predicting an outbreak of viral disease has been established on many occasions recently. One such is Southern Louisiana University’s research to plot the life-cycles of infectious diseases. Professor AronCulotta and two student assistants had gone through more than 500 million Twitter messages collected through its API and using keywords like ‘headache’, ‘sore throat’, the team had a 95% success rate in aligning with Centre for Disease Control’s projected probability of flu outbreaks in the United States.

Twitter has been used as a tool to disseminate information during Swine Flu and Ebola outbreak as well.

In this context, the authors did a content analysis of 10 twitter handles between 15 January and 15 March 2020 to map how these handles are collaborating and disseminating authentic information.  823 tweets were selected through random sampling to have a wider representation of the tweets for the purpose of content analysis using the ‘accountanalysis app’. The tweets were mainly from the period between 15 January 2020 to 15 March 2020, when the Coronavirus outbreak had taken its momentum and went to a pick with the World Health Organisation declaring it to be a pandemic.

What we found in the analysis is that: there has been international cooperation when it comes to sharing information and data. Important information were shared. There were several ground reports. And the most important aspect is: there has been a conscious effort to share authentic information.

Social media may be accused of a breeding and distribution ground for a wave of disinformation and especially in the wake of Covid-19, the platforms were flooded with false and unverified information, there is still some hope left in the social media. The findings of this research point out that despite a flood of misinformation (infodemic, as it is termed) the social media platform like Twitter can act as a valuable and authentic source of information during a public health disaster at a global level. It can fight the ‘infodemic’ at a virtual level like the health authorities are trying to combat the ‘pandemic’ on the ground.

Tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google are trying to combat the menace by changing their algorithm and prioritizing the information from the health ministries, WHO and other official sources for updating its audience on such pandemic in their search ranking and feed distribution (that perhaps explains the kind of Twitter handles that appeared in the search result for this study), more needs to be done to make the common people aware of the efforts and avenues for authentic information.

The media persons who are responsible for disseminating authentic and verified information also depend on social media feeds to gather raw information. The role of social media platforms like Twitter becomes all the more important in these cases as they ventilate information from remote areas where the media persons may not reach due to the restrictions of their mobility during the period of such disease outbreak.

Social media platforms show, even if the people are not physically connected and they are quarantined, there is a global collaboration in information sharing and educating the public about the public health disaster and this can very well pave the way of a new narrative about the globalization of information.

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DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the authors’s own and have nothing to do with Prameya English’s charter or views.

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