Since the emergence of the coronavirus this past December, it seems as if COVID-19 is the only thing the internet can talk about right now. From emergency declaratives to a rising death toll, every day seems to bring another unnerving story about its disastrous potential to light. And though public health officials and experts have tried to assuage over-reactionary fears, the online "infodemic" surrounding COVID-19 has made the pandemic panic hard to stamp out — and it's something that experts have begun to express worry over in the past few weeks.
After all, while there is some legitimate concern and a number of precautions that people should take, much of the "apocalypse" chatter has been hinged upon non-stop discussion of the outbreak's spread. And while a near-constant stream of news coverage has definitely contributed to the panic, an accompanying glut of memes and viral videos that perpetuate a number of false narratives and outright conspiracy theories have also become a cause for concern.
Even in the past few years, the internet has changed the way we consume and respond to information of this sort. However, given the way it's unfolded online, the coronavirus conversation has, arguably, become the first major global health panic we've had to grapple with on this scale — though it's unlikely that it will be the last. But even as a number of social media platforms implement "fake news" safeguards and groups like the World Health Organization attempt to spread intel via TikTok, the underlying question remains: How exactly has the internet changed the way we respond to crises? Is having an excess of information of varying degrees of credibility, ultimately, for the better or worse? And what are the ramifications of the mass hysteria phenomenon going viral?
To get to the bottom of this, we have to start with why the coronavirus in particular has — psychologically speaking — struck such a chord online.
Currently, the working theory is that this logical disconnect is the result of a superabundance of online chatter that capitalizes on the substantial amount of public fascination stemming from the coronavirus's novelty, the lack of research surrounding this relatively new threat, and the way its proliferation has highlighted the inadequacies of our country's existing infrastructure.
As Forbes posited, humans have a "built-in survival mechanism" that prioritizes negative thinking in order to protect themselves from potential danger. And while this means "existential threats often receive more attention than they deserve," it's an instinct that also bolsters widespread public interest — something mirrored within the media's 24-hour coverage of the virus.
After all, as Dr. Robert Bartholomew — a medical sociologist who's studied the effects of social media on mass psychogenic illnesses — explained, "We live in an age when the media, which is a business, is always in crisis mode. Every week there seems to be a new crisis. Before coronavirus it was North Korea, cybersecurity, the threat posed by refugees, Iran, Russian hackers, and so on."
But what does this mean in a world where bias-heavy websites concerned with views and profit have begun masquerading as reliable sources of information? Because while some traditional media outlets have definitely played a role in the perpetuation of dangerous misconceptions, what about the websites spreading viral content that hasn't been fact-checked or extensively scrutinized? And, for that matter, what do we do about posts created by those who may choose to sensationalize or selectively present certain information in their quest for clicks and engagement?
Given the fact that many posts about the outbreak have been shared hundreds of thousands of times, it shouldn't be surprising that we've also seen a number of opportunists trying to cash in on the coronavirus's inherent virality. From infamy-hungry influencers claiming to have the virus to the creation of "coronavirus meme accounts," there's been an influx of content spouting incorrect information related to the outbreak's spread and prevention. After all, just look at the controversy surrounding Summer Walker's sharing of a video by YouTube music news channel DomIsLiveNews, which used misleading footage taken two years ago to show how people in China have been "spreading the coronavirus to the public."
As illustrated by this incident though, some of these posts have had a more insidious side effect — namely, engendering a level of unnecessary vitriol and unfounded fear toward a perceived "Other." After all, it's not as if irrational overreactions bred by collective illusions of potential threats are anything new in our society, as exemplified by everything from the Salem Witch Trials to the way Jews were scapegoated as harbingers of the Black Plague. That said, as certain types of content continues to feed into things like xenophobia and racially motivated attacks, this rise of rampant misinformation has become all the more urgent to address.
However, that's not to say that all the viral content being made about the coronavirus is bad per se. In a world where more and more young people turn toward memes and viral posts as major news sources, the dissemination of accurate information in a digestible, attention-catching way is inherently valuable in and of itself. Not only that, but it should be noted that the jokier side of the internet's coronavirus obsession is symptomatic of another psychological phenomenon related to the way we grapple with lesser-known fears and threats.
"People are now in the habit of going online and subconsciously reducing their psychic stress," Dr. Bartholomew said. "In the past, people might have gone to church and prayed, whereas today in a more secular age, they go online and discuss their fears as a form of collective coping."
In the past, these types of anxiety were dealt with "more individually" before the age of social media, the ubiquity of the internet has allowed us a new outlet for collectively dealing "with things that frighten us." And, given the nature of internet culture today, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the younger generation, in particular, have done everything from creating TikTok dance trends to starting entire meme forums dedicated to the coronavirus.
"You wouldn't meme about your uncle who has cancer, but jokes that make fun of the coronavirus can be a collective way to release tension among friends or strangers," he observed. "It's well-known in psychology that the process of talking about traumatic events can help people 'get it off their chest' and relieve stress."
So while there's something to be said about the benefits of engaging in viral content related to the coronavirus, there should also be a level of discretion when choosing to share certain content, especially if it has the potential to influence the health choices of others or increase hostility toward others. Needless to say, just meme wisely and remember to wash your hands.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect changing information and public safety guidelines.
Welcome to "Internet Explorer," a column by Sandra Song about everything Internet. From meme histories to joke format explainers to collections of some of Twitter's finest roasts, "Internet Explorer" is here to keep you up-to-date with the web's current obsessions — no matter how nonsensical or nihilistic.
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