COVID-19: what social media offers

Under a citywide quarantine, social media has become a lifeline for desperate residents in Wuhan.
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By Lai Jue Hao
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In many ways the year has not started on a good note. As we weather our way into March, we have witnessed a rising tide of uncertainty around the world.

From Australia’s catastrophic bushfires to the escalating US-Iran tensions, global headline events may have offered some chilling pointers to what is to come in this new decade.

For the shipping industry, more uncertainties were presented by the IMO 2020 sulphur regulations which came into force on 1 January. More recently (and much more significantly), the world and shipping community has had to grapple with yet another crisis – COVID-19.

During a crisis, information is key. More importantly, the speed of disseminating information has become a crucial factor as it may adversely change the situation. Every second counts, and everyone will demand the latest information.

Interestingly, social media has stepped up and played a pivotal role (for better and for worse) in the COVID-19 outbreak by providing information – at a much faster pace than traditional media or the authorities in many countries.

Social media has become a lifeline for those quarantined whether in Wuhan or on a cruise ship. In the face of sometimes slow information from local media and authorities, social media has allowed those in quarantine to keep up to date with what is ongoing.

By the end of January, social media in China was abuzz with discussions as well as photos and videos detailing the situation. Many residents also took to Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, to voice their concerns and displeasure as they become increasingly anxious with their local government.

In many ways, this incident and the fact that Chinese people are speaking out, often in fury, about their predicament shows the essential ‘uncontrollability’ of social media – just like in any typical shipping crisis. Affected residents require an outlet to vent their frustrations and social media can provide this outlet. Even powerful states or conglomerates have little power to stop what people are saying during a crisis.

Some Wuhan residents have even gone a step further to employ social media as a tool to appeal to the wider world. Chinese users have taken to platforms that are beyond China’s ‘Great Firewall’, gaining access to ‘banned’ platforms such as Twitter and YouTube to share information and commentary about the dire situation.

This has allowed the foreign media and the global community to peek into a life in lockdown and the reality in Wuhan.

The lesson here is that the power and reach of social media has no bounds. It is a lesson that all governments will have to learn at some point.

Unfortunately, social media was also infected with plenty of fearmongering and fake news, including conspiracy theories that serve to only create more fear and panic surrounding the outbreak.

Intending to raise awareness about the virus, plenty of social media users were unwittingly helping to spread false information.

Common disinformation ranged from the origins of the virus to its “cures”. There was even a picture circulating which suggested the US government had been aware of the virus for years.

The picture showed a patent for the coronavirus that had been previously registered in the US – it was even shared in a Facebook post by a Republican candidate standing for the US Senate 2020 election. However, this was later proven to be false.

While social media can be a powerful ally in disseminating information during a crisis, sometimes we have to deal with much falsehood and disinformation. Fake news can be highly damaging given the rapid speed at which it spreads.

With global instability becoming a common theme, it is prudent for companies to learn how social media can also adversely affect their reputations.

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