By Lucy Haslam
Social media has become increasingly pervasive in society. You may find it almost impossible to discover any member of the human race who does not possess a social media account. Although social media helps to keep vast amounts of people connected, it also serves as a platform for rumours and fake news to proliferate. In recent decades, social media has become an increasingly important player in the dissemination of moral indignation, even though it does not always appear to be consciously engaged in sensationalism. Sometimes, merely reporting the facts is enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic; as has been the case with the news surrounding COVID-19.
Stanley Cohen is an important name to remember with regard to societal agitation. His book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panic’ talks through the process of arousing social concern over a societal “fear”, usually thanks to the mass media or some moral entrepreneurs, spreading false or selective information. Cohen focuses on the case of the two youth subcultures, Mods and Rockers, in the 1960s. Mods and Rockers were obliterated in the newspapers and depicted as an ‘evil’ that threatened the well-being of society. The newspapers fostered this opinion by only reporting cases of Mod and Rocker dissent, or by capturing images of their “regular” street fights. Through cherry-picking the information you share, you can create any image you want; something I’m sure the newspapers are well aware of and regularly use to their advantage. A similar case of mass panic occurred after the 2001 bombings, as the US began their ‘War on Terror’, whereby a feeling of fear towards terrorism and Islamic extremism spread globally through societies. This kind of moral panic is not uncommon. Moral panic around Islamic extremism, specifically, has proved to be indestructible, as rumours have also circulated around COVID-19; the new Islamic extremist weapon. Mass media has a limitless power when it comes to the creation, maintenance and spread of information. How and when they chose to disseminate this is, for the most part, up to them.
To sum up, mass media and social media have the capability to manufacture moral panic. They are experts at it. It brings them attention and attracts new readers. Misinformation only gains traction if the public read it, believe it and share it through social media. The capability of this process has been highlighted and exacerbated throughout the COVID-19 episode.
The predominant issue with social media is that it is rife with fake news, and it lacks any controls to prevent the further spread of such misinformation. How does one know the news is fake? How does one know if a source is credible? These are all questions that need answers. There have been a growing number of conspiracies published by far-right groups, claiming that global elites are responsible for the virus and are trying to hide the vaccination from huge populations. Such claims may appear implausible to most, but it only takes a few believers to escalate these rumours, mainstream their opinions and perpetuate moral panic. Other conspiracies around COVID-19, include those released by the US president himself, who overtly suggested injecting oneself with disinfectant as a form of virus protection. Statements like these fuel dramatic headlines, which further perpetuate instances of moral panic in society.
Dramatic headlines have become another source of irritation for the public. Headlines such as ‘Schools to go back on June 1st’; this headline lacks the details the government outlined, such as the phased reintroduction for certain age groups. Therefore, the headline panics many parents completely unnecessarily.
COVID-19 has had our social media inundated with fake news and fake information. It has also proved our media to be instigators and perpetuators of ‘moral panic’. The world's increasing interconnectedness has meant that what often gathers pace in private, can quickly enter the mainstream. The ease of access into the mainstream signals that we, as a population, need to learn to filter what we read and see. We need to adapt. We need to question what appears plausible and what may simply be out there to scare us? We need to question which sources are credible and which sources hold different biases? Without having this awareness, we enter a completely unknown social field, whereby conspiracy theories and fake news dictate our public opinion and, in the case of COVID-19, could result in people not listening to their government's advice and creating a serious health risk.