As lockdowns and quarantines continue around the world, we take a look at how COVID-19 is changing the social media landscape.
We’ve all heard some variation of the phrase “the internet isn’t real life”, but at a time when real life is disrupted so comprehensively, social media has become the closest thing to it. Whether it’s socialising, entertainment or support, it is becoming a vital outlet for more people than ever.
Children from across the UK thank their NHS heroes 👏
(Via BBC Tiny Happy People) pic.twitter.com/gRIzkWuX1P
— BBC Scotland (@BBCScotland) April 16, 2020
Couple this sudden spike in demand with many companies slashing advertising budgets, and the content we’re seeing has become more community focused, driven by human connection and banding together through the crisis.
Instagram has been full of viral challenges, Twitter is now the stage for dozens of fundraising and support efforts, YouTube has become a crucial resource for those looking to learn new skills and many dating apps have made their premium features free to help people stay connected.
An executive order in New York will allow people to get their marriage licenses remotely and clerks to perform ceremonies by video.
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) April 18, 2020
Because of this shift, lesser known platforms have also found new prominence. Primarily a business tool until a few months ago, the online video call service Zoom has become the main method for many people to stay connected, with more users joining in February than in all of 2019. It’s become the replacement for hanging out with friends, doctor’s appointments, exercise classes and everything in-between. And we really do mean everything.
Other businesses have also been looking to adapting to this new demand for a sense of community. Amazon Prime UK has recently started a watch club hosted by Hazel Hayes and code in a recent WhatsApp beta release suggests that they will be raising the number of users that can take part in a group video call.
How Platforms Are Adapting to the Pandemic
However, for as many stories of people adapting to make the best of a bad situation, there’s another that exposes major issues in how platforms need to adapt to keep people safe.
The biggest story in this space has been Zoom’s patchy security policies. From relatively harmless pranks like ‘Zoom-bombing’, where users can join a group call uninvited, to accusations that Zoom can provide backdoor access to people’s webcams, the tool has become a victim of its own success.
A spokesperson said on 1 April that “Zoom takes its users’ privacy, security, and trust extremely seriously… During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working around the clock to ensure that hospitals, universities, schools and other businesses across the world can stay connected and operational”, alongside an announcement that all engineering focus will be shifted to security and safety issues.
Another issue that has been magnified by the pandemic is fake news. While it’s been on the radar of social media companies for a while now, the industry’s ability to moderate its content has been put under even greater scrutiny. Misinformation and conspiracy theories have been spread about the virus for months, and many platforms have had to overhaul their moderation strategies to keep up.
One effect of this has been that these policies are being enforced inconsistently. Twitter has been hesitant in the past to moderate the tweets of world leaders, but in its efforts to remove fake news about the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine being a possible cure to COVID-19, the company recently deleted tweets from Brazilian president Jair Bosolonaro. However, tweets spreading the same misinformation from other significant accounts, including US President Donald Trump, still remain on the site.
Facebook has taken even stronger steps, giving unlimited ad credits to the World Health Organisation to promote verified information, as well as directing American users to a page created by the Centers for Disease Control through the News Feed.
An update on the work we're doing with health authorities to connect people with accurate information and limit the spread of misinformation on COVID-19: https://t.co/nqTF751bOU pic.twitter.com/QtGIjidO0Z
— Facebook (@Facebook) March 25, 2020
Founder Mark Zuckerberg also said the company will remove “false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations”, adding, “We’re also blocking people from running ads that try to exploit the situation — for example, claiming that their product can cure the disease.”
These are all good steps, but both Facebook and Twitter have rarely been consistent in the enforcement of their content policies and the ever-changing nature of the situation is sure to make this even harder, so the effectiveness of these measures remains to be seen.
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