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Harnessing Social Media for the COVID-19 Pandemic – Scientific American

With graduate school moving online and social distancing in full effect, I have been relying on my phone—specifically, Instagram—to kill time and reignite a sense of community that I lost in the COVID-19 pandemic. As momentary respite against cabin fever, a break from the slew of coronavirus-related news, and a slow reconciliation with my decreased productivity, I’ve resorted to #See10Do10 (you see a video of someone doing 10 push-ups, and then post your own) and other challenges. After 10 days of quarantine, I had completed push-up challenges, baby photo challenges, dance pose challenges, participated in candy and chocolate March Madness voting, all on my Instagram. My phone has not stopped buzzing between e-mails, push notifications, live feeds, tags in posts, texts and messages. My relationship with my brother in Japan has been reduced to the sole exchange of dog videos. Since the first week of March, my screen time has gone up by 164 percent. And, instead of being guilted by the surge of my own online activity, I’ve continued slipping into the vortex of curated virtual life.

Screen time is expected to increase among adults as well as children during the COVID-19 pandemic. #See10Do10 is just one example of the way directives spread like wildfire, even in the midst of a pandemic, and it seems both obvious and necessary for this kind of virality to be harnessed towards productive measures to contain the spread of disease.

With over 3 billion regular social media users prior to the pandemic and significant increases in daily screen time since it began, social media is fertile ground for targeting people with reliable information who’d otherwise be spreading #seeapupsendapup. The CDC, WHO, medical journals and health care organizations have been updating Web sites and providing guidance across numerous platforms, but these sites aren’t as easy to access as clicking an icon downloaded to your home screen. There have been partnerships with social media teams: Facebook now has a COVID-19 information center tab, Google Scholar is featuring articles about COVID-19, and Twitter is providing reliable sources for people who make coronavirus-related searches. These measures have been successful in some groups, but they continue to lack the click-bait appeal of a TikTok dance off or an IGTV baking tutorial.

Another challenge with this pandemic is the rapid spread of misinformation. Unlike prior pandemics, WHO has recognized the major role of media in COVID-19: “The 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’—an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

Three days after leaving Manhattan, my father sent me a screenshot of an e-mail from a doctor that explained easy tips for prevention: sip water every 15 minutes to push viruses along your digestive system so your stomach acid can kill it, self-check lung function by holding your breath for a certain amount of time every morning. The e-mail contained a signature from a real Harvard emeritus professor and physician, whom I found online, so I shared it immediately with friends and family. After I posted it to my Instagram story, a journalist friend told me it was a hoax, directing me to articles that had cited Stanford, Harvard, and other e-mails containing similar misinformation. I was ashamed and annoyed.

WHO and other organizations are tracking misinformation and making active efforts to share myth busters about COVID-19, but realistically, these efforts haven’t been enough to stop the circulation of inaccurate information or prevent the spread of fantasies like “this virus is here to help us” posts from yoga instructors who need to keep their studios afloat. Doctors who follow doctors may have the benefits of more effectively picking and choosing relevant information. “I pause at a small study here, a letter in an academic journal there. Any clinical information I can find, even an anecdote about a single patient, feels very useful,” Columbia University physician Helen Ouyang, recently wrote. “Most often, though, I see the conviction that we will get through this.”

The question is how the nonmedical layperson can absorb accurate information in the digital incubator of social media. Hospital staff are posing with “We stay here for you, please stay home for us” posters and medical professionals are “begging” for people to follow these orders, but why are seeing more emotional content and less concretely informative ones? With social media being a potential tool for implementing preventive measures and encouraging healthy living before the pandemic, it’s worth considering why there isn’t more medical information going viral during one. Are we following the wrong accounts? Do organizations need to make their profiles and stories more exciting to scroll through? More clickable? Share-worthy?

The CDC’s Instagram account has 751,000 followers, and WHO has 4.6 million followers. In comparison, Emily Ratajkowski has 26 million followers, LeBron James has 62 million followers, and Kylie Jenner has 168 million followers. Many influencers and public figures have been encouraging people to stay home and take social distancing seriously; Ellen DeGeneres (86 million followers) has posted videos to combat social isolation in the face of social distancing, Ryan Reynolds (35 million followers) has encouraged donations to @feedingamerica and other food banks after donating $1 million with his wife Blake Lively, and Michelle Obama (37.5 million followers) has posted practical ways of supporting local businesses, health care staff and practicing self-care. Many influencer and celebrity postings have centered around #StayHome and #StayHealthy themes, recipe extravaganzas or #tbt bikini and fashion photos.

Imagine influential online figures sending their combined billions of followers to trustworthy resources—or reposting CDC information in small, digestible chunks. Imagine the impact they could have on the behavior and perspectives of American and international audiences, especially as role models for teenagers—they could repost #SafeHands videos of their fans to encourage 20-second handwashing, maybe offer free tickets to their next tour. Imagine if they promoted medical educators and researchers online, magnified professional advice instead of just reposting pictures of #HealthcareHeroes at the frontlines. #Socialdistancing doesn’t need to be the biggest hashtag in Instagram history, but it could carry whatever quality people are seeking from the people they’ve admired and followed all along: a sense of belonging, inspiration, humor, respite.

There are also just a few, but recognizable, physicians who are stepping up as medical educators on social media. When I was an ER volunteer at Bellevue Hospital a couple years ago, I started following the Instagram of one of the residents, Doctor Darien, who mentored me in the trauma ward. He is now an attending emergency medicine physician in a New York hospital, treating patients, and educating public audiences in his off hours. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his posts have centered around firsthand experiences working in the ER, including research studies and statistics he’s gathered in his role as doctor-educator and first responder.

Physicians like @doctor.darien provide resources that are both reliable and relatable, unlike the CDC updates page or push notifications of newspaper headlines that can feel alienating, anxiety-provoking and exhausting. In social isolation, I’ve craved guidance from real-life people, and social media offers a curated, but concrete version of a person. I want to feel like I’m taking advice from a trustworthy individual, not a shapeless aggregate of data and people I can’t name. If influencers and online platforms could better promote and support these voices, perhaps we could make the void between institution and individual a little smaller, a little less stark.

For people like me, who try to limit screen time but are habituated to scrolling and liking between books, microwave meals, TV shows and fake workouts, we can do our part of filtering and trafficking. The CDC provides reliable information on coronavirus protocols and updates, and cross-referencing materials with proper sources is a start. We can share helpful information and clarify what isn’t yet proven or is simply untrue. In the months leading up to a vaccine, misleading information will continue to percolate with anxiety and angst. We have to be patient. We have to stay inside. When a vaccination does become available, social media will be an important place for addressing antivaccine sentiment and inaccuracy, as well as continuing efforts to disseminate proper and efficient protocol around testing, treatment and prevention.

There is no quick and clean ending to this pandemic. Once the apex in New York passes, it will move onto the next city, the next state, the next country. We will continue brushing shoulders with ambiguity. We will have to make big and small compromises, and be creative in big and small ways. If we could make #See10Do10 enforce accountability—10 ways to stay inside or maintain six-foot distances at the grocery store, 10 ways to help health care workers do their jobs, 10 ways to take care of elderly neighbors from afar, 10 ways to prevent coronavirus from entering your own home—then maybe we could make better use of the time we already spend staring at the screen, and pay it forward one post at a time.

What do you think?

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