What has been the role of the media on COVID-19? What I Learned on My Couch During the Pandemic

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My name is SoYoung Park and I am a 16-year-old South Korean student studying at the British International School Ho Chi Minh City. I have been living in Vietnam for nearly six years and have been involved in environmental projects and MUN in my school. In the future, I aspire to explore human behaviour through research and explore the ethical implications of artificial intelligence to make sure technological advances are beneficial to humanity.

At the beginning of February, I was told that my school would be closed, and lessons would take place online. Despite my initial fears and concerns about the outbreak and my education, I decided to be productive, try new things, and improve myself. However, staying motivated turned out to be a greater challenge than I expected, and I ended up spending an overwhelming majority of the next three months on social media.

My self-quarantine did not exactly go as planned – but the experience still taught me some things. I want to share my online journey, the confusion, discomfort, and happiness I felt along the way and, ultimately, what I learned on my couch by scrolling.

With the start of online learning, I began spending more time on YouTube and soon found out that I was not the only one. Boredom was driving more people to turn to social media for entertainment. Countless people started playing Animal Crossing and followed tutorials on how to make dalgona coffee. It seemed like social media was providing a break from the stress and concerns caused by the pandemic, letting us take a moment to relax and find joy.

In addition, social media has empowered people to speak up and allowed our voices to be heard better. Following news reports that the outbreak was fuelling racism, people used social media to share their personal experiences of how they had been discriminated against, and remind people that racism and prejudice are unacceptable.

However, social media has unfortunately made it just as easy to spread hatred and misinformation as it is to spread positive messages. I personally found that instant messaging on social media platforms was the greatest contributor to the issue. People made blatantly racist remarks in one-to-one conversations or on small group chats, when I knew that they would never do so if their comments were visible to the public. 

A few months ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to a video. The video, with over three million views, claimed that experts believed there was a high possibility that the coronavirus originated from a laboratory in Wuhan (Statements by the WHO do not corroborate the video’s assertions).

The large majority of the comments was convinced that the claim must be true, and the screen full of angry, racist comments left me feeling shocked and uncomfortable; it seemed like many of them did not even bother to question the validity of the video. A week later, I found a similar video. I scrolled down, only to find that the comment section was disabled. For me, this was even scarier than the flood of angry comments; there was simply no way to refute the claims and stop the spread of misinformation.

The ‘fake news’ did not stop here. My mother recently told me about the rumours circulating about the coronavirus. People were sharing ‘advice from doctors’ on how to stay safe by sending messages in large group chats containing thousands of people. The messages claimed that drinking warm water and being exposed to sunlight kills the novel coronavirus. The next day, my mom received the same message from one of her acquaintances in Korea, who is a nurse. I was confused because I could not find any official websites confirming this information.

During the pandemic, I was surprised by how much information I could get, and how much I could learn about the role of social media on the COVID-19 crisis just by lying on my couch and scrolling. However, the most important thing I learned on my couch during the pandemic was that scrolling was not enough. The negative impacts of social media are just as big as, if not bigger than, the benefits. For months, I constantly witnessed irrational prejudice and circulation of misinformation and chose to neglect them, rather than asking people to stop, to remember that hate can never be the solution, and to ask themselves whether what they have heard is confirmed by official sources.

Nonetheless, while I was lying down, doing nothing, many others have taken action. In April, Vietnam introduced fines for spreading misinformation on social media. Everyone can help stop the ‘infodemic’ by being aware that as the virus was identified quite recently, there is still a lot that we don’t know about it.

This means every time we find information online, we must look for the original source and check who made the claim, as well as tell others to do the same. Furthermore, if there is information circulating online that seems questionable, the WHO Myth busters page might be able to clear up the confusion. It was through this page that I found out that exposure to sunlight does not prevent COVID-19 and that the messages circulating on group chats were incorrect. We could even download and share the infographics from the web page so that social media can have a greater positive impact and save more people from the dangers of misinformation.

In Ho Chi Minh City where I live, life is starting to return to what we considered normal before the outbreak began. Shops, restaurants, and cafes are once again open. But the misinformation and hatred will not stop. Now, after months of doing nothing but scrolling through social media on my couch, it’s time for me to get up. It’s time for me to stand up and join the others taking action.

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