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Abstract

Within weeks of the emergence of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in China, misleading rumours and conspiracy theories about the origin circulated the globe paired with fearmongering, racism and mass purchase of face masks, all closely linked to the new "infomedia" ecosystems of the 21 st century marked by social media. A striking particularity of this crisis is the coincidence of virology and virality: not only did the virus itself spread very rapidly, but so did the information-and misinformation-about the outbreak, and thus the panic that it created among the public. The social media panic traveled faster than the COVID-19 spread. In many ways, we could identify here a metonymic principle, where the images directly related to the physical epicentres crisis (the archaic imagery of quarantine and confinement) were often associated to places and people connected with this archaic imagery: Chinese restaurants, Chinese tourists, goods from Asia, etc. leading to widespread distrust and outburst of racism. Chinese-looking residents who have never set foot in China were one of the first victims of such viral racism. WHO`s Director General Dr Tedros calls this the fight against "trolls and conspiracy theories". Misinformation causes confusion and spreads fear, thereby hampering the response to the outbreak. "Misinformation on the coronavirus might be the most contagious thing about it", he says. The impact of media reporting and public sentiments may have a strong influence on the public and private sectors in making decisions on discontinuing certain services including airline services, disproportionate to the true public health need. Travel restrictions are one example, and we need to unpack the influence of social media on such measures that carry a huge economic loss.
The pandemic of social media panic travels faster than the COVID-19 outbreak
Anneliese Depoux PhD, Sam Martin PhD, Emilie Karafillakis MSc, Raman Preet BSD,
Annelies Wilder-Smith MD, Heidi Larson PhD
Centre Virchow-Villerme, Paris, France
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK
Department of Epidemiology and Global Health, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden
Within weeks of the emergence of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in China, misleading
rumours and conspiracy theories about the origin circulated the globe paired with
fearmongering, racism and mass purchase of face masks, all closely linked to the new
“infomedia” ecosystems of the 21st century marked by social media. A striking
particularity of this crisis is the coincidence of virology and virality: not only did the
virus itself spread very rapidly, but so did the information and misinformation about
the outbreak, and thus the panic that it created among the public.1,2 The social media
panic traveled faster than the COVID-19 spread.3 In many ways, we could identify here a
metonymic principle, where the images directly related to the physical epicentres crisis
(the archaic imagery of quarantine and confinement) were often associated to places
and people connected with this archaic imagery: Chinese restaurants, Chinese tourists,
goods from Asia, etc. leading to widespread distrust and outburst of racism.4 Chinese-
looking residents who have never set foot in China were one of the first victims of such
viral racism.
WHO`s Director General Dr Tedros calls this the fight against “trolls and conspiracy
theories”. Misinformation causes confusion and spreads fear, thereby hampering the
response to the outbreak. “Misinformation on the coronavirus might be the most
contagious thing about it”, he says.
The impact of media reporting and public sentiments may have a strong influence on the
public and private sectors in making decisions on discontinuing certain services
including airline services, disproportionate to the true public health need. Travel
restrictions are one example, and we need to unpack the influence of social media on
such measures that carry a huge economic loss. The spatio-temporal variability in the
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discussions on social media, specifically Twitter, is often not in line with the
spatiotemporal occurrence and intensity of the outbreak.
In addition to addressing the urgent need to scale-up public health measures to combat
the outbreak, we need to combat the pandemic of social media panic.5 To this end, it is
important to conduct spatiotemporal analyses of the discourse and its association, or
disassociation, with the epidemiological situation as this will allow spatiotemporal
targeted communication and intervention campaigns to be executed by public health
authorities. We need to rapidly detect and respond to public rumours, perceptions,
attitudes and behaviours around COVID-19 and control measures. The creation of an
interactive platform and dashboard to provide real-time alerts of rumours and concerns
about coronavirus spreading globally would enable public health officials and relevant
stakeholders to respond rapidly with a proactive and engaging narrative that can
mitigate misinformation.
At a time when we have no other tools at hand to combat COVID-19 other than non-
pharmaceutical interventions such as quarantine and social distancing6, social media
intelligence should be harnessed to enhance the needed mobilisation of the public and
local communities to follow quarantine procedures, quickly decrease the spread of fears
and uncertainty, and enhance public trust in public health measures. Only by
collaborating with concerned communities and citizens and by providing careful
guidance for public participation can we ensure the efficacy of quarantine orders during
emerging epidemics.7
Analyses of discussions on social media with regards to the epidemic situation
geographically (geocoded tweets/messages) and over time (timestamped
tweets/messages) can result in real-time maps. Such real time maps could then be used
as a source of information on where to intervene with key communication campaigns.
A communications strategy with toolkits would need to be developed urgently as a
contribution to the immediate needs for a public health response and important
groundwork for improving frameworks for response in the face of future global
outbreaks. This is especially important for countries that are lacking well developed
media listening techniques or are in need of more efficient yet “controlled transparency”
regarding the epidemic, and for populations that are more vulnerable during the
outbreak due to lack of information. The impact of deploying a toolkit would enhance
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efforts to empower the public and enable them to become more informed consumers
who can make decisions and act from a more knowledgeable and personally confident
position - in line with public health measures. The main component for positive impact
is an emphasis on the exchange of balanced information presented as much as possible
to promote 'learning' and positioning of the consumer as a necessary active participant
in a much more complex health information environment (compared to public health
messaging of the past). A digital toolkit could be also harnessed to build future tools for
rapid deployment and engagement where multilingual and socio-cultural responses are
needed. WHO has created a WHO myth busters webpage to address and correct
misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak. The mass panic can only be fought
with information.8
Social media can and should be harnessed to support the public health response. For
example, in China during the massive community-wide quarantine it is particularly
important to use social media wisely as social media provide an opportunity to
communicate the reasons for quarantine, provide reassurance and practical advice in
order to pre-empt rumours and panic. Digital technologies can overcome the social
distancing constraints during mass quarantine, and provide mental health support
resources and solidarity with those persons in a lock-down situation. A well-planned
analysis of global online conversations could provide a rapid assessment of the spread
and possible changes in public attitudes and behaviours (e.g. self-isolating, hand-
washing, accessing health care), awareness about the disease and its symptoms, and the
impact of important decisions taken during the outbreak (e.g. quarantine measures,
development of new vaccines, internationally coordinated responses) on public
perceptions and attitudes.
Previous work in this area includes the EBODAC project (EBOla vaccine Deployment,
Acceptance and Compliance initiative) in 2014.9 This included the development of
country level communication and engagement strategies to deal with problems that
arose around quarantine measures across multiple African countries in the deployment
of Ebola vaccine trials, as well as guiding the implementation of a rumour management
strategy and community listening networks, social media monitoring and development
of tools and mobile technologies to promote the acceptance and uptake of new Ebola
vaccines.
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For the current COVID-19 crisis, we call for the development of a real-time information
sharing system, drawing from data and analyses from a range of social media platforms,
in multiple languages, and across the global diaspora. This will enhance the ability of
public health bodies and relevant stakeholders to respond to and understand the social
dynamics of the increasingly fast and evolving spread of information and
misinformation about the coronavirus and the outbreak and control measures. It will
also reduce community panic, and unhelpful measures disproportionate to the cause.
Contributions: All authors are part of CoV-IMPACT consortium, and contributed equally
to this manuscript.
Conflict of Interest
none declared.
References
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... There must be caution for using these platforms to prevent the spread of misinformation and rumors (Abdelhafiz et al., 2020). The urgent requirement to alleviate the panic due to social media has become a priority (Depoux et al., 2020). Since the information increases rapidly through social media, it is necessary to monitor and manage rumor (Frost et al., 2019). ...
... World Health Organization conveyed that determining the primary causes of fear, anxiety and anger igniting the misinformation via social media is of grave concern . Thus, social media should be used for wiser reasons since it provides an opportunity to acknowledge the measures to be undertaken and to advice to prevent misinformation and panic (Depoux et al., 2020). Governments and healthcare authorities should use social media to spread updates, news and scientific discoveries about COVID-19. ...
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... The social media platform has been used to overcome mental strains during the mass quarantine and lockdown. This crisis highlights the strengths of social media in how they can be used for emotional support (Depoux et al., 2020). In social media platform, people shared many funny videos about how to creatively deal with the lockdown, created neighborhood Facebook groups that organize entertainment and practical support to help neighbors who need assistance with grocery shopping or childcare and the quick rise of apps and functionalities allowed live chat and video sessions with multiple people at a time (Ahmed et al., 2020). ...
... There must be caution for using these platforms to prevent the spread of misinformation and rumors (Abdelhafiz et al., 2020). The urgent requirement to alleviate the panic due to social media has become a priority (Depoux et al., 2020). Since the information increases rapidly through social media, it is necessary to monitor and manage rumor (Frost et al., 2019). ...
... World Health Organization conveyed that determining the primary causes of fear, anxiety and anger igniting the misinformation via social media is of grave concern . Thus, social media should be used for wiser reasons since it provides an opportunity to acknowledge the measures to be undertaken and to advice to prevent misinformation and panic (Depoux et al., 2020). Governments and healthcare authorities should use social media to spread updates, news and scientific discoveries about COVID-19. ...
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La pandemia por virus SARS-CoV-2, de rápida expansión, ha provocado drásticos cambios globales, enfermedades y muertes. Los equipos de salud han enfrentado la urgencia y el control del contagio con nuevas exigencias. Este trabajo pretende aportar elementos de reflexión para identificar especificidades, prioridades y desafíos relacionados con el quehacer profesional orientado a la protección de la salud de la mujer en el proceso reproductivo y la salud perinatal, en el contexto de pandemia. Se revisaron publicaciones científicas relacionadas con COVID-19 en los siguientes tópicos : aspectos epidemiológicos, riesgos obstétricos y perinatales, implicancias para el rol profesional, preguntas por investigar y probables futuros escenarios. El COVID-19 es de alto riesgo materno y perinatal (morbilidad materna, cesárea, parto prematuro); hay transmisión madre-hijo por proximidad, pero la lactancia materna es aconsejable. En contexto de pandemia, la atención clínica es más compleja y distante por protocolo. Matronas y matrones pueden liderar un modelo de atención a la mujer y familia altamente humanizado desde el inicio del proceso reproductivo. Específicamente, en el nivel primario se debe priorizar la prevención, detectar e investigar el riesgo. En el nivel hospitalario, en tanto, es prioridad la protección del bienestar de la madre y del recién nacido en su más amplio concepto.Se concluye que en contexto de pandemia por COVID-19, matronas y matrones pueden liderar en la humanización de la atención. En el nivel primario, el énfasis profesional debería estar puesto en la prevención. A nivel hospitalario, el objetivo de protección del bienestar de la madre y del recién nacido deberá ser prioritario.
Mediating panic: The iconography of 'new' infectious threats
  • A King
King A. Mediating panic: The iconography of 'new' infectious threats, 1936-2009. In: R P, ed. Empires of panic: Epidemics and colonial anxieties;
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A century after the world’s worst flu epidemic, rapid spread of misinformation is undermining trust in vaccines crucial to public health, warns Heidi Larson. A century after the world’s worst flu epidemic, rapid spread of misinformation is undermining trust in vaccines crucial to public health, warns Heidi Larson.
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A novel coronavirus, probably of bat origin, has caused an outbreak of severe respiratory infection in humans in Wuhan, China and has been dispersed globally by travelers. The WHO has declared the spread of the infection a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
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This essay examines how Chinese governments, local communities, and overseas Chinese in North America responded to the perceived health risks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and H1N1 flu through the use of public and participatory rhetoric about risk and quarantines. Focusing on modes of security and quarantine practices, I examine how globalization and the social crises surrounding SARS and H1N1 flu operated to regulate differently certain bodies and areas. I identify three types of quarantines (mandatory, voluntary, and coerced) and conduct a transnational comparative analysis to investigate the relationships among quarantines, rhetoric, and public communication. I argue that health authorities must openly acknowledge the legitimacy of public input and actively seek public support regarding health crises. Only by collaborating with concerned communities and citizens and by providing careful guidance for public participation can health institutions ensure the efficacy of quarantine orders during emerging epidemics.