The Malta Independent 4 October 2023, Wednesday
View E-Paper

Coronavirus 'infodemic' a 'social media spectacle' - Maltese sociologist

Rebekah Cilia Friday, 28 February 2020, 09:48 Last update: about 5 years ago

It started off with ‘bat soups’ and people eating the animals whole, as international authorities announced the source of the novel Coronavirus could have been bats. These videos and memes quickly trickled to local Facebook newsfeeds, followed by a more recent and local spread of misinformation, including photos of fake panic buying shoppers and also the fake patient zero photo. 

Speaking to The Malta Independent, sociologist Michael Briguglio said that many people seem to value quick information over expert information. He called the Coronavirus-related ongoings on social media a “spectacle”, adding that people nowadays do not seem to be satisfied with just a press release.  


People want more and more information Briguglio said, adding this was not just a local phenomena. He explained, however, that Maltese people, being so tight knit, tend to be bombarded with more information, a fact which social media has enhanced. 

‘People believe they are experts on everything’ 

As a sociologist, Briguglio said he is concerned mostly about the fact that “there seems to be a tendency, not only in relation to the Coronavirus, that we are experts on everything, getting our information from social media. What a scientist might have been analysing for years, but does not have proper communication tools, is not given as much importance as an ‘influencer’. It’s quite worrying.” 

On 2 February 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) labelled the new coronavirus, also known as 2019-nCoV, as a “massive ‘infodemic’”, which it explained as “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.”

Mass hysteria amplified by social media 

The major distinction that sets the new Coronavirus apart from past viral outbreaks like SARS, MERS, and Zika, is that mass hysteria has been especially amplified by social media. Misinformation spread at a high rate, amplifying panic and racism. Understanding the need for timely and trustworthy information it set up specific media teams to track and respond to myths and rumours.  

The Organisation it is working 24 hours a day to identify the most prevalent rumours that can potentially harm public health, such as false prevention measures or cures. These myths are then refuted with evidence-based information.

 WHO has also partnered up with Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok to clamp down on this misinformation. It recently launched a Google SOS alert, for example, to push WHO information to the top of people’s search results for Coronavirus-related queries. It has also been working with Facebook to target specific populations and demographics with ads that provide important health information.

Facebook to remove content with false claims 

TikTok has also tried to remove misleading videos, stating that it would “not permit misinformation that could cause harm to our community or the larger public.”

Facebook also stated that it is working to limit misinformation and harmful content. “Our global network of third-party fact-checkers are continuing their work reviewing content and debunking false claims that are spreading related to the Coronavirus. When they rate information as false, we limit its spread on Facebook and Instagram and show people accurate information from these partners. We also send notifications to people who already shared or are trying to share this content to alert them that it’s been fact-checked.” 

Facebook said it will start to remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them. 

Despite all these noble efforts, however, the sheer avalanche of content has overwhelmed all those attempting to keep harmful misinformation at bay.

Coronavirus and racism - ‘Some people feel safe blaming others’ 

Both locally, and internationally, a resultant effect is a surge in racist content. Asians have been reported to have faced outright racism and harassment. One local, elderly, Facebook user commented that “all illnesses always originate from Asia or Africa.” 

Briguglio explained that when such issues arise an ‘enemy’ always has to be constructed. “Some people feel safe by blaming others,” he said, adding that it is social norm although one can in no way condone it. 

In Canada, a teenager in Vancouver, Canada, even posted a TikTok video of a boy wearing a breathing mask and hoodie in a school lunch room and coughing into trash cans in a hallway. The teens were pretending to have Coronavirus for likes, and it seems they succeeded.

The positive side of social media and Coronavirus 

Social media, in relation to the new virus, has also been used as a space for collective grieving. Weibo, a social platform in China, has seen many stories of despair and kindness. Stories of people in quarantine, patients unable to receiving treatment, receiving donating and help from other, show social media can have its perks. 

A social experiment has also ensured in China, the world’s most populous country, as the entire country goes into quasi-hibernation. The Chinese authorities have strictly ordered that people may not congregate, or socialise, and the official advice is to “stay in, don’t go out unless necessary.”

This has resulted in the streets of most Chinese cities being emptied of people. So how does one survive being at home, not able to go out with their friends, or go for a walk? Social media it seems.  

Briguglio recommends that people consult reputable sources, especially advise stemming from the health authorities and WHO. The health authorities, he noted have their own experts. On the other hand, he says that he does not agree with people who are trivialising the outbreak, adding “it is as serious as scientists tell us it is.”  

“It is worrying that some people seem to be showing more trust to people ‘yelling’ on Facebook than authorities who have a scientific basis,” he said.

  • don't miss