BEIJING: China’s COVID-19 outbreak has also sparked an epidemic of online panic. When SARS hit in 2003, 6 per cent of China’s population was online; now almost 60 per cent are.
The average user of WeChat, the country’s dominant social media platform, spends 90 minutes a day on the app.
As a result, while more than 40,000 patients in China are fighting the virus, the entire country is facing an onslaught of online media – much of it disinformation.
READ: Commentary: COVID-19 outbreak - when social media and chat groups complicate crisis communication
COVID-19 ON SOCIAL MEDIA
There are important upsides to the proliferation of social media in China. It enables citizen reporting of a kind rarely seen in the country – such as video blogs from Wuhan, the city at the heart of the epidemic.
Such independent reporting is essential in China’s tightly state-controlled media environment.
At the same time, however, the flow of information is bigger than ever. Receiving information straight to your phone, in real time, can make you feel like the virus is closing in on you – even if it’s not.
Being surrounded by panic-inducing headlines, whether true or false, has its own impact on health.
A recent study in the Lancet about the impact of the Hong Kong protests on mental health found that spending more than two hours a day following such events on social media was associated with an increased likelihood of post-traumatic stress and depression, although the direction of causality is unclear.
REAL OR FAKE?
Amid the deluge of coronavirus news, some find it hard to distinguish between real and fake.
Last week, my grandpa texted me on WeChat: “Viruses are scared of acid. Twice a day ... dab a cotton bud with strong vinegar and stick it inside your nose. It will help greatly with the current virus outbreak.”
I didn’t reach for the cotton buds.
Friends told me they had received similar messages from relatives, asking them to dab sesame oil in their nostrils or avoid wearing wool. They often came via that most tricky of social arenas: the family group chat.
Many messages, like my grandpa’s, were copy-and-paste rumours that looked at first glance like genuine texts. Many begin with conversational openings: “A friend who works in a hospital told me…”
Others include a cry of urgency: “I just got this message!” Or: “Important news.”
LISTEN: Getting to grips with DORSCON orange in Singapore's fight against COVID-19, a Heart of the Matter podcast episode
Such messages remind me of those that circulated ahead of last December’s UK election, after the Yorkshire Evening Post reported the story of a sick child forced to sleep on the floor of a hospital because of a lack of beds.
Once the story broke, social media posts trying to discredit it proliferated, often opening with: “A friend who is a nurse told me…”
In response, James Mitchinson, editor of the Post, asked one critic: “Why do you trust (this social media account’s) claim over the newspaper you’ve taken for years in good faith?”
In China, though, people are increasingly unsure whether they can take the media in good faith.
There has been widespread anger at the government over its hushing up of virus cases in the early stages of the outbreak, and over the police punishment of the young whistle-blower doctor who had warned of a new strain of coronavirus, and who, tragically, died from it last week.
The first step in dispelling misinformation is establishing an alternative source of credibility. Conversations within families could be one potent method for this.
In reality, most of my friends here have decided the best way to deal with it is to let it be. “It’s harmless,” said one friend, who referred to the Chinese tendency to give health advice as an expression of care.
Others who seek to confront their relatives have been exasperated by the fact they might trust a blog more than their granddaughter. “Grandparents buy into the Confucian idea that you shouldn’t correct your elders,” another said.
There’s also the question of where to start when unpicking a lie. While health rumours can often be corrected, pernicious conspiracy theories are another matter.
READ: Commentary: Protecting public health is key in novel coronavirus fight but we must also tackle xenophobia
One friend sent me a message from her grandma claiming the American Freemasons had created the coronavirus to kill off Chinese people.
“I know my grandma sends these messages because she cares about me,” my friend said.
As current events in China unfold, all of us will need to show patience – and care – in fighting back against falsehoods.