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Is there a downside to social media use during pandemic isolation?

UC expert studies COVID-19 misinformation
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Posted at 4:36 PM, Oct 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-05 19:59:56-04

CINCINNATI — A mass outage of Facebook, Instagram and What’s App on Monday left billions unable to access what has become a pandemic lifeline for many.

“We were probably a lot more productive yesterday, right,” said Jeffrey Blevins, chair of the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Journalism, who has studied misinformation on Twitter related to a controversial COVID drug therapy.

He believes the isolation of the pandemic, especially during months of quarantine and shutdowns, prompted more people to turn to social media to connect with distant friends and family.

“There was a sense of loneliness and isolation … and here’s a way … to escape that,” Blevins said.

But social media also became a platform to spread misinformation about COVID, its cures and its sources, and political theories.

“Social media can create this false echo chamber,” Blevins said. “People tend to believe what shows up on their social media feed, regardless of where it comes from or if it’s true … anyone can put up a video of people who look like doctors. They’ve got lab coats on, and they’re saying, 'Take this, it’s fine.'”

Jeffrey Blevins, chair of University of Cincinnati's Department of Journalism
Jeffrey Blevins, chair of University of Cincinnati's Department of Journalism

Some theories floating around social media were that the virus is caused by 5G wireless, that some ethnicities are immune and that a certain type of toothpaste is the cure.

“Things that agitate us, irritate us, things that are divisive are more likely to engage us. So things that are controversial … that’s what gets put up higher in the news feed,” Blevins said. “It doesn’t mean that social media caused these things, but again, it amplifies them in a way that perhaps is unnatural.”

While social media doesn’t cause bad behavior, such as gun violence, “it certainly escalates and amplifies those things,” Blevins said.

Especially during times of stress, like the pandemic, when worries about health and finances, job loss and caring for small children at home were at a peak.

“It’s essentially … dousing fuel on a fire,” Blevins said.

This is something former U.S. Attorney David DeVillers knows firsthand.

“People have been cooped up and they’re on social media more, so when they get out, that’s when they start getting vengeance for the stupid thing somebody said to them,” DeVillers said.

As a federal prosecutor, he investigated many shootings that originated as verbal fights or disrespect on social media.

“I don’t mean that social media is bad, but it’s all vendetta stuff," DeVillers said. "It’s one particular street getting into an argument with another particular street and then through social media disrespecting each other to a horrible level. It just spirals out of control where they are so angry with each other they … shoot at each other.

“And often they miss, and they hit innocent people," DeVillers said. "So that’s what we’re seeing in all three major cities in the Southern District of Ohio.”

It could be years before the impact of COVID on social media is fully understood, Blevins said. In the meantime, he urges more personal responsibility.

“We have to start caring more about accuracy and truth. And we have to start seeing that there are political interests and economic interests that are trying to persuade us,” Blevins said. “We can’t rely on social media companies to fix this problem. They’re businesses. I don’t think we can look for government regulation, either.”

Blevins also took Monday’s outage as sort of a social experiment. Without social media, what was life like during those six hours?

“Were you more productive at work? Did you spend more time with your kids? Did you read a book? Did you go for a walk? And if you enjoyed that, if that experience was good for you, well, think about that,” Blevins said.

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