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Kiran Gupta unpacks the global panic surrounding the COVID-19 Coronavirus and looks at the implications of mainstream and social media coverage on the virus and its impact.
It is becoming increasingly inevitable that the COVID-19 Coronavirus is going to spread all over the world and at some pace. A significant number of people will die from the illness and it will likely cause a shift in the way we go about our daily lives (at least, in the short-term). Without a doubt, this is a scary thing to grapple with. However, both traditional and social media discourse over the past few months have tended to establish a difference. An us v them dichotomy. An “Other.” As the virus has spread, the goal posts have shifted. It has become less about bringing the virus to Australia but rather how the virus started. When the focus of the story and the discourse changes this frequently, it becomes increasingly clear how, in times of fear and panic, prejudice often prevails.
Journalism scholars frequently discuss the value of conflict in news media. Harcup and O’Neill said in 2017, that conflict was one of the key values to news in the modern world. In this case, although there is no physical conflict, we still see conflict created through the constructed “Other.” The numerous theories posited online of the origins of the coronavirus (including legitimate claims by reputable organisations) all construct a world that is seemingly so different to that of Australia, from the theories of animal to human contact to bioweapon theories. Most things presented in the media seem so foreign to us that it immediately establishes an “Other.” The frequent discussion regarding international students and the travel ban also contributes to this effect. The us vs them dichotomy that is created fuels racial tensions and prejudices even when it is totally unnecessary and indeed, unproductive.
This is not to discount some of the work done by sections of the media. It is very difficult to report crises in an unemotional and unbiased way, especially when conflict sells so well. A number of Australian newspapers have walked that tightrope reasonably well, with only occasional slip-ups in this area. However, even the subtly discriminatory discourse that has permeated the media throughout the last few months has been amplified on social media, which is much less restricted and easier to spread hate and prejudice.
Social media is a valuable platform for a lot of groups. Due to its inherent spreadability and shareability, it is a platform where everyone has the chance to tell the story, to voice diverse opinions and to present counter-narratives to the dominant structures of hegemonic media power. That said, this also allows fringe voices and explicit hate speech to rise to the forefront in a way that probably wouldn’t be allowed in mainstream media. This means that any sentiment of prejudice or hate expressed by mainstream media will be amplified on social media.
This can most obviously be seen through the Anti-Asian sentiment expressed on social media as a result of the coronavirus spreading. Scholars have termed this phenomenon “platformed racism” as it inherently creates an “Other”, both at a bureaucratic and at a participatory level.
Even before social media, we have seen this phenomenon. Minority groups have often been held responsible for global outbreaks. The British Science Museum says that “marginal groups, minorities and the poor have been common targets [of pandemic panic]. Jews were widely blamed for the Black Death and immigrant Irish workers held responsible for cholera.” Historically, the “Other” is often held responsible because fear creates panic which creates division. While blame may not be an effective strategy, it is often deployed for clicks or division. By doing this, hegemonic structures of power in society are reinforced and it is very difficult to break the cycle.
Social media is also responsible for the spread of misinformation and disinformation that can promote fear and prejudice. A video of a person allegedly in China eating what seemed to be a bat soup has been debunked as being filmed in Palau (a pacific island) in 2016 for a travel blog. Yet this video spread very quickly on social media and went viral across a number of platforms, contributing to pre-existing racist sentiments and perpetuating the view that the virus was caused by people eating animals such as bats. From this, it is very clear to see how quickly misinformation can spread and just how damaging it can be for panic and prejudice.
The point of writing this article is not to criticise the media. As I said earlier, I think that some sections of the media have made quite an effort to ensure fair and unbiased reporting of what is, undoubtedly, a very difficult subject, especially in a time of panic. However, it is important we all recognise the impact of social media and especially, how quickly hate speech and misinformation can spread. It is a scary time, however, the sooner that we can address the prejudices that creep in during times of panic, the sooner we can start to put forward a meaningful response.