The Social Media Pandemic

I am fascinated by social media. I just find it amazing how it seems to have changed the world so fast in so little time, I don’t think we have grasped how much difference it has made to our society. I think you can really see the difference it has made with the response to covid-19 in all sorts of ways.

1. It dominates the news

In the days before social media, a news item may have dominated in the press – but it wouldn’t have been in your face 24/7. These days, you can’t look at Facebook or Twitter for very long without seeing something about the pandemic.

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This is one of the features of social media I find most difficult: you just can’t escape from the news!

And, of course, because most of our journalists and broadcasters are on social media, it’s a vicious circle: everyone’s talking about it, so it makes the news, so everyone talks about it…

2. Fear spreads on social media

A few years ago I talked about how outrage spreads on social media. After this last few weeks, I’d add another emotion that spreads on social media: fear. A couple of weeks ago, when I was in the supermarket, I saw someone wearing an actual gas mask. That’s a rare occurence, but a lot of people are wearing masks, gloves, etc. Now some of this may be sensible precaution – but it seems to me that a lot of people are doing these things because they are terrified.

And the reason that they are terrified is because they keep hearing how many deaths there are of covid-19. Day after day, it’s relentless: the media is fixated on the ‘peak’, on how many deaths there are… in the UK as I write there have been 17,337 deaths with covid-19 – although many more have recovered. I’ve seen quite a few people say, “Why don’t they report the number of people who have recovered?”

The problem is, the data is not entirely straightforward – Will Jones has been doing sterling work examining the evidence on the Faith and Politics blog, e.g. what is really killing people, and are we more immune than we think. It seems that the data does not actually support the apocalyptic note about covid-19 that we hear so much from the media. But, as Peter Hitchens found out, dissenting from the ‘correct’ opinion on covid-19 can bring the mob down on you.

And this is the problem with social media: if people believe a particular thing (e.g. that covid-19 is a deadly virus which is going to kill us all), then they’re going to believe it despite the evidence. Fear wins out. And I think that is, to some extent, what is happening at the moment.

3. Over-the-top responses

I’ve written before about virtue signalling – that is, saying something on social media to appear virtuous without actually having to be virtuous. I think it’s one of the most ugly sides of social media. Sadly, I think it’s been all too evident in the responses to the crisis from the top down:

Firstly: The Government. The UK didn’t initially go into lockdown, initially the government pursued a strategy of advising people to handwash and avoid unnecessary contact and journeys etc – but businesses remained open. Why did they make the change? Part of the reason for the change was the (dubious) study from Imperial College London.

Personally I think a lot of it was due to the government wanting to be seen to play it safe. MPs get so much flack on social media these days for just about anything – particularly conservative MPs. Politics has become so toxic that I think MPs and the government want to do what they can to avoid criticism. Who wouldn’t? And, make no mistake, a lot of people were calling for a lockdown and being very critical of the government for not acting sooner. (Maybe because of the climate of fear I talked about!)

The problem is, I think it’s driven them to impose a policy which looks like it is cracking down hard on covid-19, but actually – on closer inspection – will probably do more harm than good. In other words, the lockdown is a knee-jerk response to the crisis because the government want to be seen to be cracking down hard.

Secondly: Shops. The other day I went to Sainsbury’s, and I had to queue outside – they’d stuck little ‘foot’ stickers on the floor outside, two metres apart, and we had to wait dutifully in line. They were limiting the number of people in the shop. It all just felt so ridiculous. When you go into the shop, you have to touch things (which is a far more effective way to transmit the virus). You can’t stay two metres away from others in a confined space, even if you limit the numbers. And there’s precious little evidence that ‘social distancing’ actually works to contain the virus.

So… why are shops doing it?

In addition, some shops introduced an hour only for NHS staff, or only for the over-70s. Which sounds like a great idea, except for the fact that it’s caused long queues and – so I’ve heard – actually made things more difficult for some of the over-70s.

The problem is, I think a lot of shops want to be seen to be cracking down the hardest on covid-19. “Come to us, we’ll keep you safe! We’re the toughest on the virus!” And it just seems they’re trying to outdo each other in a bid to see how many ridiculous measures they can introduce. Our local Tesco has introduced an enormous entrance queue (like you might find at an amusement park), and a one-way system!

All in all, to my mind, the last few weeks have demonstrated a lot of what is wrong with society at the moment. I genuinely hope that things will change, and that – as social media becomes more established – we’ll realise some of the downsides to it and change the way we do things.

I do hope that good will come out of this crisis – and I think in some small way it has: a lot of churches have been using social media to spread good news, e.g. livestreaming services (as we’ve been doing on the Great Clacton YouTube channel). I think God is using these events to bring about good – even if, for the moment, it shows up a lot of what is bad in society. Let’s hope and pray that this is the case.

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