Social media has been a shot in the arm for information distribution. Whether you’re looking to spread awareness of the dangers of coronavirus, or warn people against going outside at a time when we’re being advised to stay indoors, it’s a powerful tool. Provided it’s used correctly.
The best-meaning tools in the world aren’t always used in the way they’re intended to. UK authorities have had to step in to warn the public that 5G cell phone masts aren’t damaging to public health, after an undercurrent of rumours tore into the open this month. Dozens of masts were torched or destroyed by vigilantes who had been whipped up by social media posts, some of whom were forwarded through WhatsApp.
When social media becomes anti-social
The free-for-all nature of social networks is democratising, but also damaging in the wrong hands. Rumours that would ordinarily be dismissed as the ideas of a crank can quickly gain pace thanks to the speed of sharing. Research by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that fake news travels six times faster than the truth on Twitter.
The way it does that is by playing to our emotions – whether that’s love or outrage. We like to share heartwarming stories, and we love to pile on against people we think have got something wrong – or have done something wrong.
And in the case of the 5G brigade, that’s a risk that rips out of social media’s digital limits and into the real world.
Social media’s role in limiting dangers
There is no difference these days between our online lives and our offline lives. There wasn’t anyway, but the coronavirus, and the fact that our day-to-day interactions with people have been replaced by staring at screens and camera lenses, puts paid to that once and for all.
The melding of the two means that any half-truths that foster online – and there are plenty, in a number of conspiratorially-minded communities – suddenly lurch into the offline world, with real-life consequences.
Every damaged cell phone mast is one less way for people to communicate with each other. Public health authorities and police have pleaded with the public to use a little sense: they also require phone connections in order to coordinate their response to look after the sick and to maintain public order.
So it’s time for social networks to act.
We’ve seen this situation before – just not in a part of the world many of us pay attention to. In the last few years India has gone through a spate of unfortunate deaths, where mobs fuelled by rumours spread through WhatsApp where whipped into such a fury the attacked and killed people wrongly accused of crimes.
In response, WhatsApp began limiting the number of times messages could be forwarded on its platform, a recognition that the speed of transmission had played a role in causing the unrest. Too many people found out about the conspiracy before official statements could tamp down the untruths.
And when we’re struggling with a perfect storm of the coronavirus and a newly resurgent conspiracy around 5G, WhatsApp has been forced to extend that globally. The company is limiting the most viral messages being forwarded even more – and making sure that people knew how to recognise when something was a much-forwarded message.
That’s not just important to stop cell phone masts being taken down. We’ve seen voice messages purporting to be from healthcare workers spreading and stoking fear and panic about the real situation in the fight against coronavirus.
Social media can be a force for good, indeed. But there are always bad actors.