The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the very best in humanity. On the one hand, it has brought communities together: people are supporting each other in a myriad of different ways. From simply talking to neighbours who they may never have said more than a few words to prior to the outbreak to buying shopping for the vulnerable, and volunteering for the NHS and other charities. We are, on the whole, working together in a collective effort to stop the spread of the disease by social distancing, self-isolating and closing our businesses. 

However, it has also brought out some of our not-so-good traits, such as our selfishness in stockpiling food and other essentials and refusing to follow the social-distancing and self-isolation rules. 

Our behaviour during the crisis has been reflected in our use of social media; we have used it to do some great things, but it has also been used badly (and for some really ugly stuff too), which I will come to in a moment. However, before doing so, I want to point out that this isn’t new: social media has been used this way before during other ‘crisis events’. For example, in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, in R v Blackshaw [2011] EWCA Crim 2312 evidence was presented that suggested social media was used to coordinate the public disorder that spread across the UK. According to Lord Judge CJ (at [73]): 

“[M]odern technology has done away with the need for such direct personal communication. It can all be done through Facebook or other social media. In other words, the abuse of modern technology for criminal purposes extends to and includes incitement of very many people by a single step. Indeed it is a sinister feature of these cases that modern technology almost certainly assisted rioters in other places to organise the rapid movement and congregation of disorderly groups in new and unpoliced areas.”

To the contrary, representations were made by Blackberry, Facebook and Twitter to the UK Home Affairs Select Committee that, during the disturbances, social media was also used for good purposes, for example, by innocent people to ensure that their friends were safe, and by the police to organise their response (see: Policing Large Scale Disorder: Lessons from the Disturbances of August 2011, Sixteenth Report of Session 2010-2012, HC 1456-I, 27–30, 30).

Social media and COVID-19: The Good

Undoubtedly social media has already been used for so much good during this pandemic. At a personal and local level, it has enabled self-isolating and social-distancing family, friends, groups, businesses and their customers and clients to stay connected in a way that even a few years ago would have been impossible. This has been vitally important for people’s mental health, maintaining a connection with our loved ones and for businesses, particularly small ones, and the self-employed, to continue working and survive, or at least continue to offer some sort of service and stay relevant to their customers or clients. This has not just helped to protect existing relationships, but has brought communities together and, speaking from my own experience, has encouraged more relationships: I’m talking to more people now, and I’m in more regular contact with family, friends, colleagues and other groups, than I was before!

Via social media we can instantaneously chat using platforms such as WhatsApp, or videocall each other. We have seen apps created that enable virtual gatherings or ‘pub quizzes’. Groups and businesses that run activities for children have moved their services online. Celebrities are producing GCSE and A-Level content for children (and parents who are now doubling-up as teachers!). School and universities have been able to move teaching and some examinations online using apps. Personal trainers have moved their exercise classes onto social media and are producing exercises routines that can be done in the home or garden. Even zoos have been using Facebook and YouTube to disseminate live broadcasts of their animals and keepers. And let’s not forget that apps like Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams have enabled many of us to continue working from home almost seamlessly, therefore enabling our employers to continue to operate, securing our jobs and helping to support our economy. 

Social media has also been used to disseminate vital information and, perhaps rather ironically for the reasons I discuss below, to prevent fake news and misinformation, relating to the virus itself and how we are responding to it. For instance, it has helped to spread the word on the need to ‘flatten the curve’ and how this relates to the need to adhere to social-distancing. In March, as a result of WhatsApp becoming known as a hub of disinformation on the virus, the messaging service launched a coronavirus chatbot with the NHS to provide advice, take the pressure off the NHS 111 service and to combat the spread of misinformation.  

The Bad

Contrary to the positive use of social media, it has been used as a vehicle for spreading fake news and disinformation, to the extent that it has become difficult for people to separate fact from fiction. Indeed, it has been estimated that approximately a third of social media users in the UK, as well as the United States, Argentina, South Korea, Germany and Spain have reported seeing false or misleading information about the virus.  This is borne out by a recent BBC report which estimates that in the first week of the lockdown 46% of Internet-using adults in the UK saw false or misleading information about the virus. According to Ofcom this figure rose to 58% among 18-to-24-year-olds.

In turn, this has fuelled fear and irresponsible behaviour, such as the panic buying of toilet roll and other essentials, and has even led to certain ethnic groups being blamed for the spread of the disease. Consequently, social media platforms and governments have had to take proactive action to deal with these publications. For example, in the UK, searches for ‘coronavirus’ on Facebook and Twitter bring up links to official NHS guidance at the top of their respective pages, whilst a YouTube search directs users to the World Health Organisation. 

As a result of a damning report from Avaaz into its handling of misinformation on its siteFacebook users who have read, watched or shared false coronavirus content will receive a pop-up alert urging them to go the World Health Organisation’s website. Similarly, as stated above, WhatsApp’s role spreading disinformation has led to the platform partnering with the NHS, and Twitter has announced that it will mark as harmful, and remove, tweets which promote fake treatments for coronavirus or deny expert guidance. The UK government announced in March that it would create a ‘counter disinformation unit’ to identify and respond to inaccurate or misleading stories and posts about coronavirus. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has said that the aim of the unit was to ‘provide a comprehensive picture on the potential extent, scope and impact of disinformation.’ According to Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, the unit’s work will include ‘regular and robust engagement’ with social media companies as they are ‘well placed to monitor interference and limit the spread of disinformation.’ The UK government has also agreed to fund the Humanitarian-to-Humanitarian Network to ‘tackle the global spread of coronavirus fake news.’ Other countries’ governments have also taken action. For example, as reported by Dario Milo and Johan Thiel, South Africa has published regulations under the Disaster Management Act 2002 which, under section 11(5), make it an offence, punishable by a fine or up to six months imprisonment, or both, to publish a statement through any medium with the intention to deceive about COVID-19, anyone’s COVID-19 infection status or government measures to address the pandemic.

Although the UK government has not gone has far as South Africa in making the deliberate spreading of misinformation about the virus an offence, Damian Collins MP has suggested that this should happen, and has said that, at the very least, social media platforms should take action against the administrators of groups containing such posts.

The Ugly

Social media and the mainstream media have a symbiotic relationship, in that social media provides a rich source of news for some mainstream news media outlets that need to fill 24-hour rolling news with new content. Consequently, true information, fake news and misinformation, or just irresponsible publications published on social media is often ‘recycled’ by some mainstream media. In turn, in the case of fake news, misinformation and irresponsible publications, the fact that ‘trusted’ mainstream media have published it serves to justify and support this information, creating a self-fulfilling cycle. 

In the case of coronavirus this symbiosis has undoubtedly added fuel to the flames of irresponsible behaviour and misinformation, with this ugly side of social media creating, what Marian-Andrei Rizou and Lexing Xie have referred to as, a higher ‘viral’ potential. Accordingly, as Axel Bruns et al recently stated: ‘The panic spiral spins even faster when social media trends are amplified by mainstream media reporting, and vice versa: even only a handful of widely shared images of empty shelves in supermarkets might lead consumers to buy what’s left, if media reporting makes the problem appear much larger than it really is.’ In turn, the way we assess the ‘risk’ attached to information is skewed, making us more ‘susceptible to misinformation’.  

The requirement for mainstream media to ‘produce’ news 24-hours a day has not helped this situation. They do not have the luxury of time when it comes to source and fact checking at the best of times, let alone during a rapidly evolving international crisis. They are having to make decisions almost constantly on whether to publish or broadcast information coming from a huge variety of sources on an esoteric topic that most of us know a limited (at best) amount about. For instance, in January 2020 The Washington Times incorrectly reported that coronavirus may have originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as part of a covert biological weapons programme. The article sparked conspiracy theories and the spread of further misinformation on the virus’ origin around the world, including being repeated by the Mail Online, and published, and then later amended, by the Daily Star in the UK. Consequently, in April 2020, Google announced $6.5m (£5.2m) worth of grants to support fact-checking groups and non-profits worldwide battling misinformation on coronavirus. A proportion of the money will go towards UK fact-checking charity Full Fact and independent body First Draft, which offers guidance to journalists on verifying content on social media.

There have also been cases of simply irresponsible, misleading and unethical reporting relating to the virus. For example, on the 2nd of April the Daily Mirror tweeted ‘UK’s deadliest day set to be Easter Sunday when government fear 50,000 will die’. However, the article headline was actually ‘Coronavirus ‘could kill 50,000’ in UK with Easter Sunday ‘to be deadliest day’’. The article goes on to say that ‘[a] worst case scenario for Britain would see a coronavirus death toll of 50,000 for the entire pandemic if people ignore the lockdown and social distancing laws, while a so-called best case scenario would be 20,000 deaths’ and that ‘[a]s it stands the UK is not on course [for] a death toll of that [50,000] scale.’

Some concluding thoughts

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has made the world a much smaller, and very different, place, at least for the time being. However, for many of us, without social media and other applications the world would have been even smaller. The impact on businesses, employment and the economy would have been catastrophic. Rather than being inconvenienced, our children’s education would have suffered significantly. Our mental and physical health would have been damaged, perhaps irreparably. Communities wouldn’t have stayed connected and more vulnerable people would have suffered. Thus, we have a lot to thank social media for, but as we’ve seen, this only tells one side of the story. 

Dr Peter Coe, Barrister and Lecturer in Law, School of Law, University of Reading; Research Associate, Information Law and Policy Centre, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London; Editor-in-chief of Communications Law.

A similar post was published by Inforrm on the 4th of April 2020. It will appear in the September issue of Communications Law and is published here with kind permission.