In this the year of Our Lord 2020 we truly are seeing the power of Twitter and social media.
As individuals around the world struggle to cope with physical distancing and social isolation, Twitter and other mainstream social media channels have become major conduits for information and networking and are arguably strengthening many people’s mental health by helping ward off isolation.
Just as the spread of COVID-19 has been enabled by our global culture and ability to span the world in hours, so the global reach of social media has enabled people to stay in contact and informed even as they are confined to their homes. And COVID-19 is very definitely where it is at right now. Ninety-five percent if not more of the tweets now appearing in my feed from the 4,000 plus people I follow (admittedly mainly health-care related), deal with COVID-19 issues.
However, it is well worth remembering that Twitter and the like are just media platforms and are neither inherently good nor bad. And so, along with enabling better communications and interactions, social media platforms are once again showing with the COVID-19 pandemic how easy it is to transmit and amplify erroneous and downright dangerous information.
Another challenge is the asynchronous, ominpresent, yet selective nature of social media. Tweets are appearing in my feed that first appeared 3-4, if not more days ago – not a good thing given the fast-moving nature of what we understand about this pandemic. Information about outbreaks, number of cases, and availability of badly needed health care supplies needs to be timely to be useful and that is often not the case with what is appearing on social media.
Also, tweets are appearing from around the world – another challenge for those of us in countries such as Canada where public health measures and other badly needed information is determined at the provincial level. Much of what we are seeing is not relevant to our own situation and can be misleading.
Social media such as Twitter allow us to choose who we follow. This selection bias means we are not getting the whole picture and can be misled about what is going on in the world around us – another critical failing if we are isolated at home. The good news is that in a stream such as mine which is so heavily health-care focused, many good people are retweeting solid scientific evidence or opinion from others I am not following directly. Unfortunately, I am sure people in other echo chambers are having poor or inaccurate information amplified. And for those of us who spend their time predominately on social media and dealing with health care in Canada we need to remember the vast majority of physicians and other health care professionals have neither the time nor interest in social media, thereby limiting our ability to view what they are contributing.
Yet, I believe my Twitter worldview to be fairly balanced. For every picture of people ignoring social distancing and filling the beaches of Sydney, Australia or Clearwater, Florida there are pictures of dedicated health care workers going about their work.
Unfortunately the unprecedented situation we find ourselves facing this pandemic have caused some to forget the basic principles of being on social media – being transparent, accurate and respectful: And in the case of health care, respecting patient privacy and confidentiality especially if that person is a physician or healthcare worker infected as a result of their work.
With social media potentially being the window on the world for many of us for some time to come those principles of human conduct which have served us so well in other avenues of life should remain top of mind.
(Image from the CDC)