The role of social media in disasters

The role of social media in disasters

Ghazi Khan

In recent years the widespread use of social media has facilitated the propagation of information in the world. Billions of internet and social media platforms users can get easy access to information they want through social media quickly. There is no denying the fact that electronic, print and social media has played and a pivotal role in educating people about coronavirus and other disasters. But, at the same time, the most discussed issue and challenge with social media is the trustworthiness and reliability of the information that they provide. By and large, social media facilitates the rapid spread of rumors in disasters and become free zones for scaremongering and spreading fake news. There is a lack of social responsibility on part of social media websites or posts in social networks that are, in general, easy to create, and can contain (by design or default) a lot of false statements and information that can confuse other users. Resultantly, the misuse of information over different platforms is a matter of grave concern to all of us.

Multiple motives lead people to post false information on social media: some posters seek a particular result, such as closing a specific service; some desire to get attention with a dramatic post; some are pushing for specific political agenda; and some innocently repeat bad or outdated information. False information and rumors on social media proliferate before, during, and after disasters and emergencies. While this information cannot be completely eliminated, however, the first responder agencies can use various tactics and strategies to offset bad information.

Unfortunately, these days the majority of the social media users are not bothering to follow any moral or ethical standard in the dissemination of information. They blindly post materials on social media without doing any efforts to check the veracity of this information.  Let me mention some examples that how people reacted to spread information in response to coronavirus in various countries. First, “5G causing coronavirus” and we have been haunted by a flood of viral posts on social media for weeks claiming 5G internet is for this virus and the weakening of immunity system in humans. After that experts took notice of it and explained it was not the case.

Another example is the touching of surfaces causing coronavirus. We have seen that people were busy in purchasing of cleaning supplies; disinfectant wipes, soap, and disinfectants for cleaning of mobile screens, laptops, doorknobs, elevator buttons, ATM screens, checkout keypads, and many more otherwise mundane objects they encounter. On Friday, May 22, 2020, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stated that the coronavirus ‘does not spread easily’ by touching surfaces or objects, said the changing its previous guidelines which placed a greater emphasis on this possibility. The CDC had previously warned that people can get infected “by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes”.

Similarly, the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) contradicted sensational news on coronavirus in social media and has dubbed as “totally fake, fabricated, and misleading,” a sensational notice circulating on the social media about a “worse type of coronavirus” hitting the community, with people dying in countless numbers and dead bodies piling up in hospitals.

The circulation of misinformation is increased during such times because people are desperately looking for answers to their questions about what is happening, where, why, and what they can do to protect themselves. And if they cannot find enough satisfactory answers from official sources, they will start to look elsewhere.

In such situations the role of social media is crucial to properly educate the people, give directions, and mold public opinion.  This is a human psyche and the harsh truth is that if there’s no guaranteed solution to the problem then every solution is justifiable. Similarly, across the world, people have started devising various remedies as response mechanisms for coronavirus treatment suitable to their local context and religious values. 

Initially, when cases of coronavirus spread were reported from China’s Wuhan province, the WHO quickly declared COVID-19 as a pandemic and started its efforts to monitor and prevent disease outbreak. Resultantly, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their precious lives, millions are infected and billions have been confined due to COVID-19. It caused irreparable losses to both men and materials in the world. Scientists have started research on the preparation of vaccines for it with at breakneck speed around the world. Rather than seeking a rational approach to devise a strategy to cope with the situation, most people solicit faith healers or religious figures for finding solutions to coronavirus. Somewhat, impractical, spiritual healers do not provide solutions to the problems rather than become part of the problems. They are exploiting the situation by defining their remedies for coronavirus treatment on social media.

Both the US and China accused each other’s on coronavirus issue as Trump has repeatedly called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus”. The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls it the “Wuhan virus”. Meanwhile, social media in China has spread stories that the pandemic has been caused by a US military germ warfare program; rumors that gained considerable traction. Thanks to the Scientists who have demonstrated that the virus structure is entirely natural in origin.

Like other countries, in Pakistan too, some groups declared that coronavirus is a Western agenda and they would continue congregations in their respective sacred places, come what may. There are hot topics of discussing these issues on news talk shows, where some well-known figures quoted references to demonstrate the power of congregations for a collective fight against the common enemy. Similarly, there are fatalists, they are empowered by the belief that their fate is already set. Where, when, and how they will die is totally out of their hands. According to them everything is predetermined and working as per the script already written. There is nothing they can do about it. Although this fatalistic attitude largely belongs to the working-class people and it is what gives them the greatest solace in this extreme era of uncertainty. They claim that when the game is up, a mask and sanitizer would not save me. If it is not up, they will survive.

There is also information on social media that people in the subcontinent have higher immunity to novel coronavirus. Besides a video shared by two renowned Microbiologists and Immunologists on social media in which they were of the view that frequent handwashing and social distancing can decrease the immune system. Such statements on social media embolden the public to follow any measures and SOPs to protect themselves from coronavirus. It further aggravated the situation and scores of people were infected by the coronavirus.

As the situation is also very much suitable for the opportunists, so-called traditional healers, and quacks, who are playing with the nerves of innocent people. They are not only spreading false rumors through social media which creates anxiety and depression among the people but also suggesting self-made solutions for coronavirus treatment which causes more harm to people. There are reports that some people died of drinking of Dettol and spirits as suggested by traditional healers and quacks for treatment of coronavirus. Secondly, due to lockdowns, people were confined to their houses and social media was the easiest platform for communication.

Experts believe that lack of information about the COVID-19 is not a big issue but curbing of dissemination of false information is the real problem. At one side bombardment of information from various sources is causing mental health issues in the people. On the other side provision of local treatment and remedies are on the rise on social media. Resultantly, it created a chaotic situation among people as everyday people come up with a unique recipe for coronavirus treatment.

In this regard, in a belated response, the UN has launched an initiative to counter the spread of online misinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic by providing people around the world accurate information to help save lives and promote global solidarity. “We cannot cede our virtual spaces to those who traffic in lies, fear, and hate,” Secretary-General said in a statement to mark the launch of the campaign, called “VERIFIED”. “There are disturbing efforts to exploit the crisis to advance nativism or to target minority groups, which could worsen as the strain on societies grows and the economic and social fallout kicks in”, the UN Agency added.

Prevention and response to counter rumors and spreading of false information is an integral part of every disaster management plan. In disaster management, people should not only be informed about the facts and accurate situation promptly but there should be a mechanism to counter the spread of rumors as well. So that panics should not be created among the affected people and they should not be misguided. Social media platforms should also come forward and ensure strict compliance with the rules and regulations in their business operations. They should adhere to the principle of social responsibility, ensure transparency, and accountability in their work in disaster management.

It is the need of the hour that people should share only authentic and reliable information. People should not share highly deplorable information issued to create unrest and anxiety. People should only consult authorized health professionals for seeking treatment for any disease. Being a responsible citizen people should not work as post offices to forward rumors and misinformation through social media.

There is a famous proverb in Pashto language which says that “By the time that the truth comes out, lies will have destroyed many villages”.

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