The historic sweep of COVID-19 across Asia, Europe, and now the United States simultaneously has gone “viral” digitally and across social media, effectively becoming the biggest news story on the planet overnight.
As is the case with any major developing news story, social media users quickly took to their platforms of choice not only to stay informed but also to share experiences related to the virus and updates from quarantine with their audiences. If the growing pandemic can be seen as one repercussion of globalization’s ubiquity, then the reaction online can and should be seen as a manifestation of Big Tech’s omnipresence in the digital era.
It is imperative in this time of crisis that so-called social media truly be a platform for the people, serving the best interests of users who may have no other way to connect with each other and the rest of the world. While Big Tech has drawn ire in the past for banning users who do not conform to executives’ standards, it is critical that social media actually serve as a platform for all in these trying times.
Politicians, policymakers, journalists, and other public-facing leaders use the major tech platforms not only to find out about breaking news, but also as their chief distribution tools to disseminate official information, statements, and press materials to constituents and stakeholders.
With “social distancing” and quarantine measures in place intercontinentally to contain the further spread of the virus, so-called social media is taking on an even greater importance: serving its primary function of connecting friends and family who may be isolated from one another, either miles or continents apart.
In mainland China, for instance, Hubei province—a region roughly the size of the entire country of France—was under a hard quarantine for weeks on end over the Lunar New Year. At one point in time, Chinese authorities had nearly 700 million people—one-tenth of the global population—under some form of quarantine.
Now, the virus has reached crisis levels across the Atlantic. As of this week, the UK finds itself under a full lockdown for the next three weeks. Still, the number of cases there and throughout Europe continues to balloon, with no end to the quarantine in sight.
In the United States, the virus has spread to all 50 states. Our southern border has been shut off to nonessential travel, and California Governor Gavin Newsom along with New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio have implemented shelter-in-place mandates. Most states are turning to some form of quarantine, if not hard shutdown, and nonessential businesses are shuttered for the time being.
As we have already seen with most universities asking that students not return from spring break, and major corporations such as Walmart and Amazon mandating remote work, there is a very real possibility, for the first time in American history, that citizens will be homebound for the foreseeable future. Real human interaction may forever be altered as a result.
During this time, citizens will be turning to social media not only for news, but also for comfort, solidarity, and connectivity. Big Tech firms should be looking for innovative new ways to streamline remote work for companies, while also providing users with a human experience they may otherwise have to go without.
This coronavirus pandemic should serve as a moment of unity and fortitude in which politics are put aside, and transparency prevails online. Now must be a moment of international cooperation and digital information flow. Big Tech should be leading that push for openness and collaboration.
Companies like Parler are at the forefront of facilitating this crucial transmission of information: history will look back on our role at this time as even more important than that of news and media outlets responsible for reporting fairly on the pandemic. Social media content in this time of “social distancing” is about to serve as the chief record and digital archive for this novel moment.