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Opinion: From COVID-19 to BLM — operate responsibly on social media

Bandwagoning, disinformation present challenges among digital denizens
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One report found that it took six times longer for a news article to reach 1,500 people when compared to disinformation. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
One report found that it took six times longer for a news article to reach 1,500 people when compared to disinformation. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

In recent months, I have witnessed critical events grip the world around me in ways that are, for the most part, unprecedented. In particular, the exponentially horrifying spread of COVID-19 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement seemed to occur one after the other in rapid succession.

This disturbed the naïve peace that many of us are privileged to thrive in and prompted me to examine how news surrounding these events was spread during these times. Specifically, I started to pay closer attention to the usage of social media and how its method of information dissemination has encouraged bandwagon culture as well as mass disregard for objective fact-checking.

Hitching a ride

The bandwagon effect is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to act in certain ways primarily because they observe others acting similarly — their actions may even be counter to their own beliefs.

In terms of my own observances, this trend increased dramatically in the wake of the George Floyd protests, as well as a myriad of other subsequent social justice movements. I am not saying that those who made novel revelations during these times are superficial. I am asserting that, disappointingly, bandwagon culture has found a new platform in the form of performative allyship.

Due to the invisible societal pressures that social media exerts on youth, I feel that many people choose to share information posts in order to be seen by others as conforming to their community’s norm. This pressure is especially prescient within the context of a university campus, where ostensibly liberal places, such as U of T, can demand that you be on the right side of history.

I am, by no means, against people taking the initiative to educate themselves. Sometimes, ignorant actions can still have good intentions. However, sharing something for the sake of feeling a sense of belonging is backward thinking and detrimental for these broader causes. In my opinion, authenticity is integral to propelling genuine social change.

Fastlane to false information

Beyond its herd mentality effects, social media has sped up the rate at which disinformation spreads. A study in the journal Science revealed that real stories took six times as long to reach 1,500 people when compared to stories disseminating disinformation.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers claim that a concurrent ‘infodemic’ has also blossomed — characterized by the mass diffusion of disinformation, preposterous conspiracy theories, and discriminatory propaganda.

Social media is instrumentalized to create divides amongst different racial groups, promote falsehoods, and induce unnecessary panic by those who are not just ignorant, but irresponsible.

In times like these, solidarity — and maintaining a critical eye toward the things we consume — is crucial. Fact-checking and source identification are essential to separating falsehoods from fact. Given our human propensity to bandwagon, combined with the alarming rate in which disinformation can be spread, I fear we are headed down a road toward a dangerous kind of collective consciousness — one that can be easily manipulated by online media.

I think it is important to remember that the things we share are often based on the lives of actual people. They are neither glorified fictions nor popular mainstream trends that exist to fuel our performative egos and ignorant minds.

Pump the brakes on media consumption

If you truly want to heighten your awareness of the world around you, maybe try turning to slower forms of media, such as newspapers or accredited publications. These types of sources usually go through extensive peer review and are held to a much broader institutional standard in our society.

Converting to slower forms of media at times is especially integral for students at U of T. As the future leaders of the world, it is vital that information is spread responsibly amongst us.

According to the Pew Research Centre, a staggering 90 per cent of 18–29 year olds use social media as of February 2019. Most U of T students fit within that age cohort. As the primary users of social media, we have a duty to use it responsibly.

As school reopens in an era of uncertainty, objectivity, fact-checking, and authenticity are the primary tools of promoting positive collective action as a student body. Spreading false information during such turbulent times can have unpredicted consequences, such as ostracizing marginalized individuals, encouraging baseless falsehoods in regard to safety, and dividing diverse communities.

I am not suggesting that social media should be made obsolete. Responsible dissemination of information requires the use of both digital and traditional media in conjunction. So, before you share that article or fact sheet, contemplate the reasons you have for doing so. Then, put in the work to ensure that you aren’t contributing to the current alarming wave of false information.

As the digital era grows, it is up to us, the young drivers of change, to operate responsibly within it so that we can cultivate a safe learning environment for everyone.

Kathy Xu is a fourth-year political science and industrial relations & human resources student at University College.