When used correctly, social media can be an essential tool in spreading crucial information to millions of people within seconds. However, in cases regarding virus outbreaks, like the Ebola virus disease craze occurring around the world, social media shows its darker side.
The major Ebola outbreak (killing thousands of people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone so far) is also known as “the first major outbreak in the era of social media,” stated by Fast Company in article titled “Fighting the Endless Spread of Ebola Misinformation on Social Media.” In “#Ebola Lessons: How Social Media Gets Infected” author Evan Blair states that the outbreak “serves as a case study for the role of social networks in large public panics.” Most people are aware of the negative aspects of social media when it comes to dramatizing current events, yet we learn the extent of it in this serious Ebola scare having the entire world terrified. The thing with social media that makes it worrisome is that it is public, and therefore unregulated, meaning facts can get lost in translation. When information about major outbreaks and treatments reaches remote areas, social media becomes a madhouse within milliseconds. It ‘s nearly impossible for misinformation to not get wrapped up in all the chaos.
Further stated in Blair’s article, “The Ebola outbreak has unveiled a darker side of social media — the voracious spread of misinformation.” Social media has the power to influence viewers in a way that can, at times, be completely irrational. Containing Ebola has been made extremely strenuous when fear, rumors and superstitions are making the situation far more difficult to handle. CNN article asks, “Are myths making the Ebola outbreak worse?” and we have CNN reporter Nima Elbagir responding with, “Absolutely.” The extreme level of public anxiety is making the Ebola outbreak of a higher danger than the spread of the virus itself. Social media really becomes detrimental in this sense, when “Rumored preventatives and cures rapidly gain traction online as desperate West Africans search for any method to counteract the thus-far untreatable disease…In Nigeria, two people died from drinking salt water — making misinformation in that country half as deadly as the disease itself.” I find it extremely concerning that people seem willing to do almost anything that social media tells them to. Users on social media have the ability to cause complete anarchy in the minds of those who follow, and the “ill-informed noise” (says Blair) on social media makes it difficult for legitimate health sources such as the Center for Disease Control or the World Health Organization to get their factual findings and information into the spotlight.
A great example of the danger of misinformation on social media is when Yahoo’s Twitter account was hacked, positing a tweet to 1.3 million followers that said 145 people were hospitalized in Atlanta – and it took a good 10 minutes for the tweet to be removed. The speed of the internet is what makes social media detrimental in these cases of public fear and anxiety. One [misinformed] post can be taken across the world and back before while the truth is preparing to surface. With online use and social media being a public space, users on the outside of the organization are starting to become a liability with their spread of misinformation that is causing harm, and in this case of Ebola, death. What can be learned from the Ebola outbreak and the role of social media in these times of panic is that rumors “feed on social media, diluting the spread of accurate information and jeopardizing the credibility of organizations,” stated by Blair.
At this point in the social media game, there is not much prevention of the infection of social media and spread of misleading information; all we can do, being the internet-dependent society that we are, is remain aware of the destructive flaws of social media that have the potential to drive humanity straight into the ground – or to the grave.