It’s no secret that social media has rooted itself deep into many people’s everyday lives. We depend on it for news, communication and information. During the COVID-19 pandemic it was a natural progression for social media to become the prime source of communication for many people around the world. During the pandemic, Australia, specifically, was lucky to be on the lighter end of the inflicted countries. But that didn’t stop panic and terror to breed in our society. While the virus was obviously an event to be worried and cautious of, social media facilitated an excess of panic and terror in Australia towards COVID-19. While countries like the USA had a much more severe pandemic experience than Australia. Them being one of the most influential countries of the world meant that social media was flooded with USA based experiences and stories, making COVID seem much worse than it realistically was for Australia. In addition to this, journalism sites utilised the event to clickbait fake and misleading news articles to spread social media to generate revenue, which also facilitated unnecessary terror and panic in Australian audiences. Social media has also created persistent-pervasive communities (Hampton, 2016) which meant there was a much larger group of people we felt connected to through as a result of social media. These people posting their unusual and scary experiences during COVID times, influenced panic through the perceived proximity of the community that social media has created.
The widespread use of social media creates a base for sharing information worldwide. On the predominantly English-speaking side of the internet, information about the USA seems to be everywhere. My personal knowledge of US politics may be more than my knowledge of Australian purely because of how saturated the social media I use is of American issues. While it makes sense as the US has been a leader in economic power for a long time, the influence America has on other countries through just social media becomes worrying. During the height of COVID-19, America had a particularly bad experience, especially when comparing to Australia. Naturally, as it was a predominant issue for everyone, social media was flooded with information through photos, videos and other posts showcasing how bad COVID was. During this time, I saw countless posts about new cases, death counts, conspiracies and other information, through social media, it appeared as if America was collapsing. Australians on social media seeing this narrative over social media would of course become panicked and fearful of COVID, overly so, considering we would be relatively safe as long as we followed guidelines.
Seeing as the goal of social media is maximising the time an individual spends using it, there’s no surprise that it would’ve pushed posts about COVID to the top of our feeds, which pushed the idea that the virus was much more terrifying than it truly was. Of course, COVID-19 was something to be hyperaware and careful about, but social media became a cycle of fear. During periods of isolation, social media naturally was the place to go for communication. Sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter collected worldwide panic and the more one saw about COVID, the more fearful they would become, the more they’d interact with such posts, causing the algorithm to suggest more, confirming the user’s belief of COVID being terrifying and panic inducing. In relation to the cycle I explained, Ciarán Mc Mahon states “these processes not only increase the acceptance of claims that feel increasingly familiar and compatible with what else one knows but also foster a high sense of expertise and confidence.” Social media catering to our interests can quickly descend into a bubble of confirmation bias in which we seek out what we already believe in, being that COVID-19 is something to panic and be terrified about.
Social media is everywhere, and the influence it has on us is proportionate. The experiences of the USA during COVID-19 were plastered all over sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which bred panic and terror through Australians watching it all unfold. Moreover, social media was never on the users’ side, algorithms aiming to keep us online show more of what we interact with. Individuals scared of COVID may constantly be on the lookout for information of outbreaks and such, resulting in being shown more similar information, leading to a sense of confirmation where they constantly see posts that support their exaggerated idea of COVID-19 being terrifying and worth panicking about.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have a portion of their sites dedicated to news, which allows easy access for users to trending news. The ease of access not only encourages users to engage in news, but on places like Facebook, where your feed directly shows you posts from pages you haven’t followed, users find themselves absorbing news without ever searching for it. Boczkowski et. al (2018) interviewed social media users to research their experience with ‘incidental news’ and stated, “many interviewees say they regularly consume news as a by-product of their constant use of social media platforms on their smartphones.” Even if one doesn’t actively look out for news, through the power of social media, it will still find you. News outlets have taken advantage of this rampant spread of news online through the development of fake news. In recent years, the term has risen in popularity. It refers to journalism that is misleading or untrue and is often created with the intent of drumming up attention for said news outlet. The rise of this phenomenon is partly the due to the nature of the internet, where having visits to a website contribute to its profit through ad revenue. As such, news articles only need an eye-catching headline and thumbnail to lure individuals in. Due to this, a higher portion of journalism companies have taken to farming ‘clicks’ with seemingly minimal concern for truth. With this established, it would make sense for them to take advantage of social media and COVID-19. What better way to grab someone’s attention than creating fear and panic? An article from Sky News headlines “A COVID-19 outbreak could ‘overwhelm us very quickly’” using quotations from an assumedly qualified person. Upon further investigation, the full quotation is from an editor of Herald Sun, who said “COVID-19 is going to overwhelm us very quickly if what is happening overseas is replicated here.” The headline omits certain information which results in an illusion of higher urgency and danger. In reality, an unqualified journalist essentially stated that if Australia had the same growth in cases as the US, we would be in trouble. This article obviously takes advantage of the pandemic to trigger panic in audiences by exaggerating and selectively choosing information to show viewers. And if they engage with the article, liking or clicking it, that said social media will learn to show more to that particular user. This creates a feed that pushes the narrative of COVID-19 being terrifying and worth panicking about to the user. Facebook in particular has been seen to create bubbles of confirmation bias through The Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed/Red Feed” website, which shows the different articles Facebook chose to show liberals and conservatives which supported their ideologies and narratives for or against certain presidents.
Social media during the height of COVID-19 became the main way of communication and news for many individuals. Journalism companies, seeing this as an opportunity for profit began to create misleading and sometimes fake articles. Users on social media often incidentally see news through their normal usage of platforms. Using this, news companies bred unneeded panic and terror through fake and misleading COVID-19 related news on social media.
While I previously commented on the influence that other countries had on Australians through social media, I didn’t explore the influence that communities very close to us have. At least not to as much depth. Keith N. Hampton (2016) has dubbed ‘persistent contact’ and ‘pervasive awareness’ as results of the effects that evolved communication technologies. His belief is that widespread access to online places like social media has allowed us to maintain connections to a much larger group of people despite a lack of direct communication.
Persistent contact is seen when an individual posts on Instagram expecting it to appear on their follower’s feeds, a person-to-network connection, instead of a person-to-person connection via directly sending that image to each individual following them. Hampton states this persistent contact through posting on social media works by “sustaining contact without substantively drawing from the time and resources required to maintain ties through other channels of communication.”
While pervasive awareness describes the information we gather on other people without social presence, new interests, relationships, places they’ve been. Pervasive awareness is an explanation to knowing that Harriet you haven’t seen for two years somehow owns a boat and went to Rottnest with Ella, Sophie and Emma over Easter break. Hampton further explains “pervasive awareness is an outcome of person-to-network communication and low, social presence that typify such contact.”
Being in a persistent-pervasive community makes one feel connected to many more people despite the lack of typical contact, and as such, we may feel more influence through the web of people we keep in contact with. Social media has for certain been a large catalyst in creating persistent-pervasive communities and within the context of COVID-19, has facilitated an excess of panic and terror in Australia. Social media has become a place that individuals tend to post extremes to, when they’re experiencing something particularly good, or perhaps an event that’s particularly irritating or unusual. In relation to COVID-19 this resulted in images or videos of usually busy roads I’ve personally travelled down that were empty, or shopping centres I frequented being overrun by customers. This imagery was much more terrifying than any image of a US equivalent. Because of the persistent-pervasive community that social media has brought me into, I feel a deeper influence from these posts due to the proximity of these individuals I maintain contact with. The COVID virus being an already scary event caused many to post their negative feelings and experiences which, as explained, due to the nature of persistent-pervasive communities was shared to many more people than it would’ve without social media. Not only that, during isolation, social media was the first and foremost place to go to be able to stay connected with people which made any and all panic so much more dominant in our day-to-day life. Hampton’s writings on persistent-pervasive communities gives an explanation to how social media has facilitated an excess of panic and terror in Australia towards COVID-19. The connections we feel to the people we follow on social media, though weaker than traditional relationships, are more easily maintained and thus means that we’ll develop a larger pool of people we stay in contact with. Due to this, the influx of posts we witnessed during the height of COVID-19 from that community was so much more influential since we had a connection, unlike the influence from US media. The fear and panic that we saw on social media felt much closer, encouraging us to feel the same way, which wouldn’t have been as strong without that access to the online world.
During the height of COVID-19 in Australia, social media created a much higher sense of panic and terror in users than was realistically necessary. Online influence from countries such as the USA, inflicted with a much worse COVID experience than Australia, flooded our social media making it seem much worse than it truly was in our side of the world. Fake and misleading news articles were shared around through social media which made the virus out to be much worse than it was in reality. And because of the nature of social media, where it created persistent-pervasive communities, Australians seeing other Australians experiencing panic and terror through their social media encouraged further panic due to the proximity of knowing those people. Hopefully, as COVID-19 eases up around the world, users of social media can reflect and see how influential social media can be in a bad way.
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