Coronavirus: how social media is being hijacked amid the pandemic

Some people are getting famous by sharing their real experiences, others are faking them

BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 10: A Chinese woman wears a protective mask as she looks at her phone while sitting in the Sanlitun shopping area on March 10, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of the deadly new coronavirus COVID-19 being treated in China dropped to below 18,000 in mainland China Sunday, in what the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global public health emergency last month. China continued to lock down the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, in an effort to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease. Officials in Beijing have put in place a mandatory 14 day quarantine for all people returning to the capital from other places in China and countries with a large number of cases like South Korea and Japan. The number of those who have died from the virus in China climbed to over 3140 on Tuesday, mostly in Hubei province, and cases have been reported in many other countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, Iran, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and several others. The World Health Organization has warned all governments to be on alert and raised concerns over a possible pandemic. Some countries, including the United States, have put restrictions on Chinese travellers entering and advised their citizens against travel to China.(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
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Amid the swirling confusion surrounding the outbreak of Covid-19, we can be thankful for one small mercy: you can't catch it over the internet.

While parts of the world face severe restrictions, with major events cancelled and social gatherings prohibited, social media – for all its ills – maintains our personal connections. Communities who've been told to stay at home can be brought back together. Relatives, friends and acquaintances can inform one another – in vivid detail – about their activities and states of mind. We can entertain each other. Calm each other. And alarm each other.

People exiled from their offices are getting used to the benefits and pitfalls of working at home. China saw an explosion in videos of cats kneading dough, for reasons that are unclear

The big social media platforms have long provided an uninhibited, free-flowing stream of people’s thoughts and feelings. Anyone currently using them will be only too aware of how worried people are about coronavirus.

But those same channels also supply information alongside the conjecture; what it’s like to be near an epicentre of an outbreak, how it feels to be locked down in a city, to self-isolate, to have the virus itself.

With widespread hunger for information, these small glimpses of humanity help to ground us. They don’t even need to be reassuring – many of them aren’t – but at least they’re real, lived experiences.

How the coronavirus has created social media celebrities

The last six weeks has created some unlikely social media stars. Megan Monroe, an American citizen who went to work in China in December as a teacher, was placed under lock down along with the other 11 million residents of Wuhan.

After a day or two Monroe began to document their routine on a TikTok account ( Currently approaching day 50 of the "Wuhan Quarantine" series, Monroe provides a candid, upbeat take on local events, and it has become hugely popular, with some videos tipping a million views. There's little drama, but solace can be found in the mundanity.

“We can’t be scared of this thing,” Monroe say, cheerfully. “We just have to get along with our lives.”

Then there are the simply bizarre uses of social media, employed in such exceptional times, by a select few.

The dating app Tinder – not generally a go-to source for information about health crises – has been used by people who subscribe to its Passport service. This allows them to set their location as, say, Wuhan, and ask their dating matches what life is really like.

“Food supply is quite alright now,” said one Chinese match to her Vietnamese suitor. “I only hope there won’t be a massive rise in prices… I haven’t left my house in 5 days.”

Social media has made news immediate – but not always true

Over in Europe, and in Italy in particular, health workers have been offering insight into the challenges faced by the healthcare system.

“The current situation is difficult to imagine and numbers do not explain things at all,” reads one tweet posted by a friend of an A&E consultant in Northern Italy. “Our hospitals are overwhelmed by Covid-19, they are running 200 per cent capacity … Staff are working as much as they can but they are starting to get sick and are emotionally overwhelmed.”

Such posts spread exponentially, much like the virus itself. But therein lies the problem that has long plagued social media; not all information sources are reliable, and rumour can quickly escalate.

A recent example occurred the Ukrainian town of Novi Sanzhary, where local panic was amplified by the messaging app Viber. The news that Ukrainian citizens who had recently returned from Wuhan were to be treated in a medical facility in the town quickly became a call to arms.

“We can’t afford to let them destroy our population, we must prevent countless deaths,” read one message. “People, rise up. We all have children!!!” The aftermath of the message exchange led to 24 people being arrested for rioting.

Others are using the virus for cheap clicks

But while some people suffer at the hands of misinformation, TikTok users are making hay by creating it. In recent days, a number of them have claimed to have been diagnosed with coronavirus, presumably to get attention. And it’s working.

Two videos recently posted by a young woman with the handle @syduniverse feature her account of her Covid-19 diagnosis as she wears a face mask. They received a combined total of 8.5m views. A third video, confessing that it had all been made up and that the health worker in the video was a friend wearing painter's overalls, received just 90,000 views.

“I think it’s really interesting to see how many people can be misled so easily online!” she said, cheerfully. Lies, of course, move a lot faster than the truth.

Back in the real world, self-isolators are quietly waiting it out. Nadine Dorries, the British MP who recently tested positive, tweeted this week: “It’s been pretty rubbish but I hope I’m over the worst of it now … Keep safe and keep washing those hands, everyone.”

People exiled from their offices are getting used to the benefits and pitfalls of working at home. Others are just messing about to pass the time. China saw an explosion in videos of cats kneading dough, for reasons that are unclear. One gentleman posted footage of himself sitting on a high stool and fishing from a goldfish bowl. Italians have been sharing their humdrum activities with the hashtag #iorestocasa (I Stay Home). “I watched Harry Potter films today and compared them with books,” read one. “And you?”

Some people will find these mundanities reassuring. Others will head straight for the bad news. But all social media users seek some kind of truth, which they try to knit together, patchwork-style, into an account that satisfies them. Whether they ever really discover the truth is debatable. But at least it helps them pass the time.