Causes, Learn and Act

How media shapes our socially distanced lives

I read a headline a few weeks ago- “For the first time, the number of cured cases surpasses the number of active cases in the country”- and I found myself ecstatic. It almost felt like a weight lifting off my chest: a momentary victory in this anxiety-inducing period that we are all collectively experiencing. The COVID pandemic has had unparalleled global repercussions. In India, the it has been coupled with crises, including the crumbling of the economy, the migrant crisis, natural disasters including cyclone Amphan and locust attacks. Since the lockdown that began in March, we have been receiving an influx of negative information that we as a community have to collectively process. All this is coming at a time when we are all adapting to a new reality, one of social distancing and isolation.

This period of social distancing has been an unusual chapter in all of our lives. The fact remains that we are a social species, owing to which we do rely on our interaction with one another. So logically, this abrupt interruption in what we deem to be normal does add an additional stressor to our body, which in turn has a significant impact on our physical and mental health.  The Europe Regional Division of World Health Organisation (WHO) released a statement stating that the major psychological impact of the current COVID predicament is increased levels of stress and anxiety. The introduction of the new measures to tackle COVID especially quarantine can result in an increase in feelings of loneliness, depression and may even result in increase in harmful alcohol and drug use as well as self-harm and suicidal behavior. The media that we are consuming can play a role in fueling anxiety during this period. 

News Media: Look Beyond the Headlines

To start off with, I would like to thank the media for all the incredible work and the reporting that has been done through this pandemic. Media houses went above and beyond their call of duty during the current pandemic and ensured that contemporary issues were addressed on public platforms. We as a society owe our media channels.

However, what I do want to draw upon is the nature of the narrative that has been put across by the media. In many ways, this narrative creates panic and fear, which causes people to react in ways that have been apparent across the country. 

The reason I say this is:

1.In the headline and first few lines of most articles, there is a tendency to fixate on the total number of cases that are prevalent in the country, along with the total number of deaths that have occurred. When an individual digs deeper into the article, there will be information available about the total number of active cases in the respective states and the number of recoveries, but people skimming through headlines get a very different picture.  

2. Secondly, constant comparison is made with other countries in terms of the total number of cases. However, the fact remains that there is a disparity in terms of the total area and population. It is important to note that in some cases, the size of a single state or even a city is far greater than the country to which it is compared. 

The simple manner in which the headline of an article is framed transforms our experience of reading the given article. In an article published in the New York Times, author Maria Konikova raises a very interesting argument on this topic. She emphasises that that the headline influences our recollection and the facts presented in the article. This becomes problematic when headlines are primarily focused on the total number of cases (rather than actual number of cases) and the number of deaths that have occurred on account of the Coronavirus (without mentioning number of recoveries).

Just a friendly reminder, the novel Coronavirus has a recovery rate of over 50% and a death rate of around 2%

This is not to downplay the relevance of the Coronavirus. It is important that we continue to follow health and safety protocols, government regulation and maintain social distancing. 

News on Social Media: Is it True or False?

Apart from news media, social media is one of the primary sources of interaction with the external world, In the face of the crisis, social media usage has skyrocketed. A study conducted by Kantar (covering 25,000 people across 30 markets) revealed that during this period: 

  • Web Browsing increased by 70% over regular use
  • TV viewing increased by 63% over regular use 
  • Social Media increased by 61% over regular use 

Amongst all social media channels, WhatsApp has experienced the highest usage with a 40% increase in daily usage. Facebook usage is seen to have increased by 37%. Other social media channels including apps such as Instagram and Tik Tok have seen an increase of over 40%. The increased usage has been observed amongst people who are under 35 years of age. 

Such increased reliance on social media has been coupled with the spreading of fake news, false narratives and conspiracy theories which has resulted in panic, violation of government regulations, religious and racial discrimination.  Across the globe, authorities have had to create protocol to fight this rise in misinformation and fake news which has been spread through digital mediums. The WHO has described this avalanche of fake news as an “Infodemic” that creates an additional burden for people to find trustworthy and reliable sources. 

In India, the surge of falsified information has forced the government to constantly pass notices against the spread of fake news through social media channels. In Maharashtra, the police had to file as many as 51 cases across the state against people sharing false information regarding the Coronavirus. In one special case, an FIR was filed against the owner of a mattress company who shared an advertisement with a local newspaper stating that the use of the mattress would prevent the transmission of Coronavirus. 

Cases such as these are not limited to Maharashtra. In Lucknow, a fake godman named Ahmad Siddqui proclaimed himself the “Corona Wala Baba” and shared misinformation that people who could not use a mask could use a specific talisman to prevent catching the novel Coronavirus. These are just some examples of misdemeanors that have happened during the time of Coronavirus. 

The scale of the Infodemic has been so vast that social media channels have had to intervene to stop the spread of misleading content during the COVID crisis.  In April 2020, Youtube took down a live-stream which made the false claim that the spread of COVID was linked to the use of 5G. They also changed their policy decision, banning any content which contradicts legitimate health authorities such as WHO or other health organisations. Following this, Facebook deleted two major “Anti-5G” groups which had over sixty thousand followers who created petitions for the destruction of the 5G network. WhatsApp has also set regulations to limit the forwarding of messages on a daily level in an attempt to reduce the spread of fake news. 

In this period of uncertainty,  the spread of false information can further anxiety, stress and mistrust. It is imperative that we as a community recognise this, and ensure that we verify the data that we share on social media channels. 

For more on this topic, you can check these links:

https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/fighting-fake-news-during-covid-19/article31233348.ece

https://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanholmes/2020/04/24/is-covid-19-social-medias-levelling-up-moment/#678ac4b96c60

Author

Nikita

Nikita Chatterjee is currently pursuing her Masters in Development from Azim Premji University.

Artist

Srabanti

Artist and Visual Storyteller

I am a feminist and an artist with a keen interest in mental health. I have always found peace and the power of expression, in art and music, since a very early age. Empathy is my mantra and goal for life. The rest of me is essentially my love for dogs, swimming and food!

Email me: srabanti.k19@gmail.com

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