April 17, 2024

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Coronavirus Content Raises Questions of Morality on Social Media

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Coronavirus has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. It’s also, unofficially, social media fodder.

Misinformation and memes tinged with xenophobia abound — and intentionally panic-inducing posts — are making it hard for some to distinguish between fact and fiction. Last week, James Nord, founder and chief executive officer of influencer marketing platform Fohr, came across a tweet claiming that hand sanitizer is worthless in mitigating the spread of coronavirus. Common sense — and the fact that alcohol has been used to sterilize germs since the late 1800s —  would say otherwise, and yet, numbers don’t lie: The post had racked up 180,000 retweets, according to Nord.

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Fact-checking is hardly a common practice among social media users — the platforms are built for speed, not thoughtful and careful consideration by their billions of users — and some are seizing the opportunity to produce #CoronavirusContent. But COVID-19, which has killed more than 6,500 people globally, carries higher stakes than a throwback Thursday or TikTok dance challenge.

In short, the COVID-19 social media flex is raising questions of morality.

“There aren’t many things that the whole world collectively is thinking about every day and interested in,” Nord said. “It has this unifying effect around people’s attention because everyone in some way is thinking about [coronavirus]. It makes that content so shareable — and misinformation so dangerous.”

People often come together on social platforms to share and receive information about a variety of topics and engage with one another. In recent days, trending hashtags such as #QuarantineAndChill and #CancelEverythingNow, both of which have racked up tens of thousands of tweets, have emerged. As these and other trending topics spread, they are giving way to distasteful, even cruel posts. The ever-churning meme machine is targeting Asian people in particular, with false information that’s causing some influencers to face online slander.

Tina Craig, the influencer-entrepreneur known as @bagsnob on Instagram, said she has “never faced blatant racism like this in my entire life.”

“I saw this post that said, ‘Don’t worry, the coronavirus won’t last long. It was made in China,’” Craig said. “People thought it was funny. I’m like, people are dying, terrified for their lives. Would you say that about cancer?”

Craig, who has 457,000 followers, has started incorporating coronavirus content into her social media strategy, using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization as resources. A post she shared detailing what to do during the coronavirus outbreak quickly became one of her most-liked posts, she said, demonstrating a demand for and interest in this content from social media users — many of whom are getting vital information about the virus on social media.

Fashion influencer Vanessa Hong said while she was in Paris for fashion week, Uber drivers canceled rides on her Asian friends “for no reason at all.”

“The xenophobia, I address that openly in my [Instagram] Stories and my Instagram page,” said Hong, who has 642,000 followers. “I was on this boat before where people were like, ‘I don’t want to make this political.’ But whenever has anything not been political?…To compartmentalize your digital self to one box and your true self in another seems discordant with where the times are moving.”

Nord, Craig and Hong are now trying to figure out how to keep influencer businesses going amid a worldwide health crisis. Nord estimated that “5 percent, if not less” of his clients’ campaigns have either been shifted or postponed. (Fohr works with an influencer pool of more than 90,000.)

“We’re also prepared and would not be hugely surprised if that number dramatically increased,” he said. “If it comes to a place where there are mass quarantines and people are staying in their apartments, we’re a digital advertising [agency]. People don’t have to leave their apartments to create the ads.”

Craig said in a follow-up e-mail that her personal business has not yet been impacted by the virus.

“In fact, I’ve actually received more requests for brand partnerships than usual this last week,” she wrote.

Hong said she is rethinking her social media approach and is abstaining from sharing backlogged fashion month content out of respect for the gravity of the virus. Beyond reconsidering her approach to posting, Hong said she may cut back on photo shoots that require crew members to touch her face and stand in close proximity.

“I made a decision that for my health and also the community of people in my life, I’m choosing no longer to do in-person meetings, I’m not going to be doing any large events or even small events,” she said.

“We live in the era of the re-poster,” continued Hong. “So many influencers are ready to dispense information and I’ve seen other influencers dispensing misinformation or recommending or reposting things. We need to be responsible with the power we all have, whether you have 10 followers or 10 million followers.”

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