SINGAPORE: COVID-19 has been a highly disruptive period for individuals and societies the world over, as we learn to adjust to a lifestyle where social distancing and virtual communication are the norm, replacing physical intimacy and interactions.

While social media has been an integral part of our lives for the past decade, COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented surge in social media usage.

Consulting firm Kantar’s global study on media habits conducted from Mar 14 to Mar 24 found a 61 per cent increase in social media engagement over normal usage rates. As more countries have gone into partial or full lockdown mode since then, this figure is likely to have increased.

Millions of people worldwide have turned to social media to connect with family, friends, and colleagues, as well as to stay abreast of the latest developments regarding the pandemic.

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In these trying times, social media has played a key role in keeping people connected and informed as well as fulfil certain human needs and wants, including social interaction, information seeking, entertainment, self-presentation, and relaxation.

THE WAY WE USE SOCIAL MEDIA HAS CHANGED 

The unique nature of this crisis has also disrupted some of the usual ways in which social media is used and consumed, generating a shift away from more narcissistic and individualistic narratives to a more public-service oriented use of social media.

While selfies, wefies and images of activities conducted in lockdown abound – cooking, gardening, art and music have emerged as frontrunners – an increased public consciousness has also emerged on social media.

The social media video sharing app TikTok is contributing US$250 million toward pandemic relief efforts. (Photo: AFP/Lionel BONAVENTURE)

This is reflected in various ways, such as informative posts providing updates from governments and other credible sources; offering help, support, and (free) resources; messages of solidarity and hope; and expressing concern for and helping the less fortunate during this difficult time.

There also appears to be greater recognition of the inequalities that abound in our social systems, and how COVID-19 is impacting vulnerable communities, such as the elderly, daily wage labourers and migrant workers, disproportionately.

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There are greater social media calls to action to provide support to such groups. One example is the effort to share information about meal deliveries by hawker centres and other eateries adversely impacted by the recent Circuit Breaker measures.

This increased public consciousness is a welcome change from the more individualistic, selfie, entertainment, lifestyle-focused, and – dare I say – somewhat frivolous content that we are used to seeing on social media.

This is not surprising as social media does perpetuate a herd behaviour – meaning that if some influential people or influencers have posted a particular message of solidarity or an appropriate social message on their pages, this is likely to influence others to follow suit.

SOCIAL MEDIA CURE FOR BOREDOM

But it is not just about causes and information. With safe distancing measures, lockdowns in some countries and the Circuit Breaker month in Singapore, social media has also become the key way in which we maintain our social engagement. 

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As we use social media increasingly during this period to maintain relationships and connections, the content people share has also become more interactive, often requiring the participation of one’s network. Think of all the challenges you have seen emerge on social media in recent weeks.

Apps such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype and Rave as well as Houseparty have seen increased use

Apps such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype and Rave as well as Houseparty have seen increased use since virus lockdowns began. (Photo: AFP/Eric BARADAT)

During this period, we have also seen newer platforms gain a following. For instance, the sudden re-emergence and popularity of Houseparty, a “face-to-face social network” app, lies in users being able to simultaneously video chat and play games with up to eight contacts in an online “party”.

Zoom, which has traditionally been used as a video conferencing platform for work purposes has also become a tool for leisure – as friends use it to catch up with one another in real time in this stay-at-home scenario.

Similarly, the spike in viral posts and games continues as people around the world are forced to entertain themselves to stave off boredom and loneliness.

SOME THINGS WILL CHANGE 

The coronavirus is an once-in-a-lifetime type of event that will reshape society in lasting ways. And with every crisis, there are opportunities.

We can use this crisis to rethink and reshape the way we use social media, moving away from our excessive consumption and unhealthy practices to a more balanced and mindful approach.

To some extent, this is already happening. Conversations on social media platforms now also focus on our fragile global ecosystem, shared futures, and the need to re-think the way we live and work beyond COVID-19.

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However, this will not be a straightforward shift.

The relationship between technology and humans is a complicated one: technology is not a neutral medium, as our values and beliefs shape the way we develop and use technologies. To that extent, social media is a reflection of our true selves.

Just as hope, fear, social responsibility and moral consciousness abound in the social media landscape during this time of crisis, narcissistic behaviour, hate speech, misinformation, bullying, and crime continue to flourish online.

Much of this can be attributed to the architecture of social media platforms. Many platforms are designed in ways that perpetuate our beliefs and prejudices, creating echo chambers that seal us off to contrary opinions. Racist and xenophobic vitriol on social media during this crisis has thrived in such social media spaces.

Social media use is also driven by shares, likes, and reposts, prompting us to post content that is popular or fashionable at that time — whether it is socially conscious or not. Undoubtedly, as we get used to life under COVID-19 and as the crisis resolves itself, we will return to many of our familiar social media habits.

However, there is no denying that COVID-19 has triggered a global soul-searching, from which a greater social consciousness has emerged.

And as we share this new, frightening reality, there is no better time to introspect about our relationship with social media, and how to use it in ways that are more empowering and beneficial—not just for ourselves and our loved ones, but for the larger global community.

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Dr. Anuradha Rao is the founder of CyberCognizanz, a training and communications company that focuses on critical digital literacy and keeping people safer in cyberspace.  

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