The spread of COVID-19 triggered a large series of global events. Every day there are more news about the virus and its effects. It is not a surprise that most people feel overwhelmed by all the information broadcasted by news agencies. However, the events presented by the news are dwarfed by the masses of information spread through social media. With regards to the global crisis caused by COVID-19 it is especially interesting to take another look at the role of social media.
Marina Ghersetti is an Assistant Professor at the University of Gothenburg and specializes in the fields of Crisis Communication, News Evaluation, Journalistic Roles and Political Communication. Swedish App Scene managed to arrange an interview with Ghersetti to gain some unique insights into the complicated field of how social media are used during crisis times.
How does the Public generally make use of Social Media during a Crisis?
“Our Research so far has actually shown that people in general do not primarily use social media to keep informed about what is happening in the crisis. For that people usually turn to established news outlets”. Additionally, nearly all news agencies have a digital presence online. So people do not really use social media for news. Instead, they rely on digital outlets of news agencies they would use in a regular situation to get their information during a crisis, Ghersetti said.
So how do people use social media during a crisis if not for news? “People use social media to see how their friends and relatives are doing”. Instead of using social media as a source for news, people use them to reach other people directly to see if they are well. “Our results indicate that people use social media as a compliment to news media, rather than instead of news media”.
We dug a little deeper and asked whether people trust the news updates shared by others on social media. Ghersetti answered that people are generally more skeptical towards social media than established news outlets. “They know that you cannot rely on Facebook the same way you can rely on information from established news media”.
Have you found anything unexpected when it comes to the role of Social Media during the Corona-Crisis?
“We found that people use much more media in general during a crisis because your need for information increases during a crisis”. This is also the case for the Corona-Crisis, which indicates that there is nothing unusual when it comes to the general use of social media.
However, Ghersetti argues that there are unusual outcomes when it comes to minorities within Sweden. “We found that there are differences in how minorities look for information during the Corona-Crisis. Minorities in Sweden would use social media more than the general majority to look for information”.
There are several reasons for why that might be the case. For example, minorities might not turn to Swedish news outlets because of a language barrier. Another reason might be that some minorities might originate from countries where there is a low trust towards national news outlets. As a result, they might trust information on social media more than information from established news outlets. This makes for a large contrast in Sweden as it is a so-called high trust country. Specifically, “Swedes trust media and authorities to a much larger extent than most countries”, Ghersetti said.
Are there differences in demographics when it comes to the use of Social Media during a crisis?
“The differences during crises are the same as the differences during everyday life. For example, we know that women use social media more than men do. Also, younger people use social media more than elderly people. Even highly educated people tend to use social media more than less educated people. This is not a big surprise as highly educated people use media in general more than less educated people”, Ghersetti let us know.
“The only thing that really changes during a crisis is the amount of media you use, meaning both the number of outlets and the time you spend using media”.
Would you say that it is generally beneficial that Social Media function as a platform for information during a crisis?
“Generally yes, because it is a compliment to news media”, Ghersetti argues. However, there is always a small amount of people who blindly believe information on social media. This is especially the case during crises as “always when there are crises there is also misinformation”. Misinformation could include conspiracies on the reasons behind the crisis. “So far, I have not seen them gain a lot of traction. They are there, but they do not have a lot of followers. Most people understand that conspiracies are based on unreliable information”.
Nonetheless, according to Ghersetti social media are generally beneficial during crises. Particularly because most people know to differentiate reliable information from unreliable information. For that reason, most information on social media complements the news in a positive way.
Are there any dangers related to the use of Social Media during a crisis?
A recurring danger when using social media are filter bubbles. Nowadays algorithms on social media suggest information based on what someone usually looks at. That leads to one side of the information being reproduced. “When that happens, you can easily lose the broad perspective”, Ghersetti argued.
However, the positive sides of social media during crises outweigh the negative. Our main concern during crises is our safety and that of our friends and relatives. “You get the information you need to orientate your private life during a crisis”, Ghersetti said. “Even though there are risks on an individual level, I do not see a lot of danger related to social media during crises on the societal level”.
In the future, do you think that Social Media will replace traditional media as a means to receive information during a crisis?
“Definitely not in the near future. What might happen is that established news outlets will be using social media more actively. You may read their news on Facebook instead of in the newspaper. But you still have the same news producers, it is just another platform. We might see more of that”, Ghersetti said.
Established news outlets might not be replaced by social media, but they are becoming more and more dependent on them. “They look for news items on social media. Established news outlets scan social media to get a grip of what kind of news the public wants”. So instead of totally adapting to social media, they use it as a tool to gain an overview of what the public wants. “It actually makes their work easier and time-saving”.
Social media are a complex new field amassing countless sources of information. The amount of content and users increase every day and they continue to influence many parts of people’s lives. However, at times of crises when information becomes vital, they have not (yet) replaced the dominance through reliability of established news outlets. Only the future can tell if that will ever be the case.