The coronavirus pandemic is commonly considered a substantial challenge to human well-being on a global level. Along with other emerging worldwide problems, the influence of the COVID-19 is directly dependent on the actions of individual citizens, particularly of the most affected populations. However, concerning the considerable use of the Internet advantages and social media platforms, the COVID-19 impact on humanity is also defined by the quality of information to which online users are exposed. Therefore, within current technology-based society, people tend to rely on the media news exposure, which enhances the spread of misinformation driven by politics, which potentially amplifies humanity’s challenge, such as global pandemic COVID-19.
Social Media Activism Defined through the Lens of the Infodemic Issue
Despite the adverse health outcomes provoked by the coronavirus, people faced another critical challenge of misinformation, which is an inevitable concern regarding the daily use of social media platforms. This research questions whether social media activism during COVID-19 undermines public trust and general misconceptions of the world pandemic threat. The COVID-19 pandemic is a very vivid example of such an impact, given that the resulted online environment represents the truth as a matter of life and death. According to Pennycook, McPhetres, Zhang, Lu & Rand (2020), people usually neglect content and data accuracy when making decisions about sharing information online. Moreover, individuals that are more intuitive or those less knowledgeable about science tend to believe and share falsehoods.
COVID-19 and Conspiracy Theories
The novel coronavirus pandemic increased the worldwide society relocation from the physical public spaces to the online networks due to the containment measures to fight the virus. Therefore, the abundance of social media platforms became the widespread assets used to understand the social discussion regarding COVID-19 better. However, social media outlets are also inhabited by bots, which are the automated accounts that can enhance particular topics of discussion at the cost of others, meaning online users. For this reason, the in-depth examination of social media can serve as an informative tool to evaluate how people collectively manage such an unprecedented global crisis.
The Twitter Case
False and misleading claims promoted by politics through social media affect the public mindset and are complex problems to eradicate. Gruzd & Mai (2020) explore how the recent social media activity related to the coronavirus pandemic led to the emergence of conspiracy theories. The advent of the #FilmYourHospital conspiracy from a single tweet reveals the continuing challenge of dealing with misinformation during COVID-19. This case demonstrates how the emerging conspiracies in the present time undermine the core concept of the gullibility of humanity. Thus, such incidents are hard to neglect, considering that they directly affect nursing homes and hospitals worldwide, jeopardizing global health. However, the researchers argue that misinformation diffusion can be potentially alleviated by fact-checking and directing online users to credible sources of information from public health agencies.
The COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 dramatically increased the trending topics of conversation related to pandemic. As described by Ferrara (2020), the online discussion on social media platforms is currently considered one of the essential tools to track social discussion regarding a global crisis of COVID-19. The researcher investigated 43.3M English tweets about coronavirus to analyze the application of bots that promote political conspiracies in the United States, contrary to individuals who concentrate on public health concerns. By intertwining the benefits of machine learning and manual validation, as well as computational tools and statistical analysis, the researcher examined the landscape of Twitter in terms of COVID-19-related discussions. More specifically, the spread of conspiracy theories on online social media is “a well-established issue” (Ferrara, 2020, p. 15). The findings demonstrate a set of bots primarily posting conspiratorial content of political nature concerning the COVID-19 discussion.
The Adverse Implications of Bots
The volume of bot-fueled conspiracies was compared to the number of the discussion by real online users. As a result, one can observe that the activity associated with such narratives facilitated by bots is comparable with the low bot users’ activity concerned with public health risks. Twitter bots keep up with the wave of popularity of a given topic, as in this case, with the trending COVID-19 discussion, to infuse a deliberate message or narrative to enhance its visibility. For instance, hundreds of tweets included references to news about coronavirus that were further followed by sequences of hashtags similar to those displayed in combination with a link to the YouTube videos. The most common sensationalistic headlines that developed further conspiracies implied that:
- the virus was made in Wuhan labs,
- the virus is a “globalist biological weapon,”
- it imported into China by the US military,
- the products imported from China can be infected with the virus.
With that said, the COVID-19 news bots automatically collect and collate information gathered from the news. Therefore, the most tweeted sources display a combination of US-centric and worldwide news outlets and organizations in English, as well as Twitter-based news bots. The typical tweet posted by the news bot includes the headline of the news as the body of the text, together with the URL. The hashtags and keywords on Twitter are new crucial tools for expanding political propaganda and conspiracy theories. They are commonly associated with the spread narratives based on free speech issues (#freespeech, #freezerohedge), “truthers” narratives (#coronavirustruth, #5G) reportedly uncovering globalist conspiracies. A particular accent is traced within the stories indicating the connection between the dissemination of the 5G wireless technology, the onset of COVID-19 originally in Wuhan, and a bot-fueled conspiracy occurring in the middle of February.
The analysis of COVID-19 Misinformation in a Global Context
The coronavirus pandemic is commonly defined as a significant challenge to human well-being in a global context. Pennycook, McPhetres, Zhang, Lu & Rand (2020) explore how people trust and spread false information and determine particular interventions to improve online information quality. Through a cognitive-science perspective on COVID-19 misinformation, the authors point out the importance of nudging people to consider data accuracy as a simple approach to improve the information spread on social media. As such, social media activism during COVID-19 is linked to considerable negative consequences for many online movements. The current Internet landscape is highly enhanced through online activism and related challenges, specifically through its adverse use promoted by repressive governments (Pinckney, 2020). Therefore, one of the most important concepts to examine is the idea of strategic thinking during crisis times, which helps understand how to operate in the digital landscape.
The Role of Mental Health during COVID-19 Social Activism
COVID-19 has a critical influence on mental health among the affected populations. Gao et al. (2020) analyze how the government aims to enhance the public’s consciousness of intervention strategies by using social media platforms to provide up-to-date information about survival rates and active cases. The highlighted associations between the predominance of mental health conditions and social media exposure emphasize the adverse impact of social media activism during the pandemic (Gao et al., 2020). Social media is considered one of the primary means of updating information about coronavirus pandemic.
The COVID-19 outbreak promoted the spread of disinformation and false reports about the virus that, in turn, seized social media and fueled unjustified fears among online users. Hence, such social media activism misleads the public and harms people’s mental health. The majority of examined citizens expressed adverse feelings, including “fear, worry, nervous, and anxiety” caused by social media, which are considered “contagious social networks” (Gao et al., 2020, p. 7). Such findings emphasize the need for the governments to draw more attention to mental health among the general population in fighting COVID-19.
The Radical Change through Online Activism
Multiple social movements adjusted to unexpected circumstances and were especially active during such a challenging period. The abundance of social media platforms intensified various social justice movements’ initiatives during the lockdown and changed the role of the online spaces in establishing grassroots movements. However, the COVID-19 pandemic can also be perceived as the opportunity for change based on “preliminary results of a digital ethnography” of the daily practices of online activism (Uldam & Askanius, 2020, para. 4). The coronavirus crisis was formulated as the chance for imagining a more sustainable post-pandemic world and as a challenge for activism. Similar points in articulating hope and visions of solutions are inherent to decision-making processes and the organization of society.
Social media is an open-source of information and, thus, sharing posts online might be relatively perceived as protesting in the streets. Zamre (2020) identifies online activism as a substantial part of activism in the twenty-first century. Social media activism revealed that people are ready to fight for what they consider is right. With that said, it is crucial to examine the rise of social media networks during COVID-19 and the strong position owned by online platforms in the current era. Nevertheless, it is vital to recognize the necessity of adapting to the coronavirus pandemic and how it is driven by social media activism. This approach will help to initiate the critical change within modern society in terms of combatting the COVID-19.
The outbreak of coronavirus provoked another critical issue known as infodemic, which encompasses the viral spread of misinformation through multiple social media platforms and is enhanced by online activism during the lockdown. The changing digital environment by such a crisis period has severe implications on the public mindset and humans’ health. As such, it is essential to understand that false information has the power to amplify humanity’s global challenges. The research examined online activism during the global crisis caused by COVID-19 through the lens of conspiracy theories, bot-fueled accounts, impact on public mental health, and the radical change promoted by such online movements. To sum up, governments need to raise awareness of the negative implications of social media activity during the pandemic and develop appropriate strategies to address not only the pandemic but also the infodemic.
Ferrara, E. (2020). What types of COVID-19 conspiracies are populated by Twitter bots? First Monday, 25(6), 1–25.
Gao, J., Zheng, P., Jia, Y., Chen, H., Mao, Y., Chen, S., Wang, Y., Fu, H., & Dai, J. (2020). Mental health problems and social media exposure during COVID-19 outbreak. PLOS ONE, 15(4), e0231924.
Gruzd, A., & Mai, P. (2020). Going viral: How a single tweet spawned a COVID-19 conspiracy theory on Twitter. Big Data & Society, 7(2).
Pennycook, G., McPhetres, J., Zhang, Y., Lu, J. G., & Rand, D. G. (2020). Fighting COVID-19 misinformation on social media: Experimental evidence for a scalable accuracy-nudge intervention. Psychological Science, 31(7), 770–780.
Pinckney, J. (2020). Amid coronavirus, online activism confronts digital authoritarianism. United States Institute of Peace, Web.
Uldam, J., & Askanius, T. (2020). COVID-19 and online activism: A momentum for radical change? E-International Relations, Web.
Zamre, R. (2020). From streets to tweets: Surveying the impact of online activism. Observer Research Foundation, Web.