A B.C. expert in communications is warning the public to check their sources and ensure what they’re reading is accurate, to help reduce the spread of misinformation. (Black Press file)

Social media a blessing and a curse during time of crisis: B.C. communication expert

‘In moments of crisis, fear is very real and palpable,’ says SFU’s Peter Chow-White

Amidst time of crisis, people around the world are in a hurry to find accurate information, but sometimes it’s not always there.

In times like these before technology, people around the would flood to a trusted news source to get the latest information. Now, even legacy news sources, mass media institutions that predominated the Information Age, are using social media to reach their readers.

A B.C. expert in communications is warning the public to check their sources and ensure what they’re reading is accurate, to help reduce the spread of misinformation.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” said professor and director of Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication, Peter Chow-White, in an interview March 18.

“It’s a (curse) because on the one hand there’s a lot of information out there, it’s hard to know – you have to sort of sift through a lot of it to figure out what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s real and what’s not.

“The blessing of social media is that the information gets delivered very quickly to our home, so we can react much faster than we normally would around these sorts of things.

Additionally, in order to navigate through crisis, he says the public needs to practice being information and media literate.

“It’s huge on the individual these days,” explained Chow-White.

“This is sort of a place where legacy news comes back into play and becomes more important than ever.”

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With thousands of news sources and websites reporting on the pandemic, and some reporting on a crisis for the first time, the professor says the accuracy of information reaching people’s news feeds can be lost.

“It’s just not their traditional domain,” he said.

Social contagion, he explained, operates very similarly to viral contagion; there is a network effect, and social media amplifies this.

“It amplifies that (misinformation) and creates fear and panic in people’s minds without giving them the oportunity and the information to understand the context; how to mitiage that fear itself.

“In moments of crisis, fear is very real and palpable.”

Earlier this month, Black Press Media reported that an Interior Health medical officer condemed an article published by an Okanagan media outlet. The article included a “projected death” calculation that upwards of 5,800 people in the Okanagan could die from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The media outlet since issued a public apology.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Medical health officer condemns ‘alarmist’ article

Chow-White says since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, some information hasn’t been properly communicated.

“It would have been good to have messaging around – you don’t need a ton of toilet paper, and you don’t need it for two years. That’s a good case of how information gets delivered improperly and the narrative takes over instead of the science.”

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However he added, there are many benefits to society tackling a crisis during the Information Age, thanks in part to social media.

“Social media becomes critical in communication. People need to be able to go to Twitter and have the algorithms push the information that is most important and that is the most trustworthy,” said Chow-White.

“Even though people are managing their own feeds, Twitter and Facebook have a social responsibility in these moments as well.”

Social media companies have had to act quick in their response to misinformation but also access to facts since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

For Facebook, that includes banning ads that capitalize on fears, putting more funds into fact-checking resources to comb out the false claims about treatments, and removing all non-official COVID-19 accounts from Facebook and Instagram.

Twitter has pledged to relaunch its profile verification program to help identify authoritative voices in its attempt to ensure facts are being seen by users first and foremost.

Even Snapchat, which is used mainly by younger demographics, has added a dedicated section on its app for COVID-19 news.

Not a B.C. conversation, but a global one

Chow-White furthered that the current COVID-19 situation isn’t a B.C. conversation; it’s a global conversation which works at multiple levels. These include local, national and international levels.

Over the last month, several events have reinforced why Chow-White believes the internet is an uneven approach to following information by leadership, in the context of global information.

Referencing the topic of flattening the curve, moving from a mitigation strategy to a containment strategy, he says this wasn’t done particularly well in Canada, and especially B.C.

“An example of that is – the Ministry of Education on Friday (March 13) announced that there’s no reason to close schools – and it’s good to keep them open… completely contradicting what the rest of the world is doing.

“Ninety-six hours (later), they reverse into a 180.”

B.C. has been hosting afternoon news briefings on Monday to Friday and at noon on Saturday – streamed by all TV stations but also broadcasted live on the government’s social media channels. These briefings include a daily case count, any provincial orders delivered by B.C.’s top doctor, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and a question-and-answer portion for reporters.

Such provincial orders have included a ban on large gatherings – initially for events with more than 250 attendees but which has since been lowered to 50 guests – shutting down bars an dnightclubs and banning dine-in guests at restaurants.

But the ban on gatherings has proven just how difficult it is to get messaging quickly to thousands of provincial citizens. Days after Henry announced the order, people were still spotted on social media hosting weddings and other events.

READ MORE: Weddings, big gatherings have to stop, B.C.’s COVID-19 doctor says

Henry has spent much of her daily briefings reminding the public that the ban may be on gatherings of more than 50, but that doesn’t mean that 45 attendees or even 20 or 10 makes anyone less at-risk of contracting the virus.

In fact, she has since urged people to stay indoors and if they go outside only go with the people you live with and in grous of no more than one or two – and most importantly, stay six feet apart.

The province unveiled this week that under the current state of emergency, bylaw officers are now being enabled to enforce government restrictions.

On Friday, March 27, Henry unveiled what she called ‘cautious optimism’ that the various contact restrictions had nearly halved the potential transmission.

That report sparked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to remind the public that while “an excellent sign,” the news offered even more of a reason for people to continue listening to advice of health officials.

“If we are seeing a reduction in the spikes, then that shows it is working but that means we need to continue what we are doing,” he said.

Unevennes has since evened out, says expert

Canada, Chow-White explained, is among the third wave of areas hit, following Asia and Italy. Currently, the U.S. is dealing with the most cases in the world right now, as China has started to see a drastic reprieve.

Iran, he said, has been one of the hardest hit areas.

Last week pictures surfaced online of football-field sized mass graves, taken from space.

“If that was a first-world country, then we’d be a lot more panicked. But we tend to ignore these sorts of things in the global north, unfortunately. Not everybody mind you, but a lot of people,” he said.

“If there was some sort of connection between that and us, a little more force through the last week, we wouldn’t have people walking around outside right now, casually wondering why they can’t go out for St. Patty’s Day.

“I’m not trying to make light of it, I’m just trying to illustrate a lag and an unevenness.”

Thankfully, he said, that unevenness had since evened out. He says people are getting it, and they’re staying home.

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@PentictonNews
editor@pentictonwesternnews.com

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