As the spread of Covid-19 inches closer towards being declared a pandemic, it’s fascinating to watch the communications. The phrase “going viral” is literally being played out in real time with the threat of an actual virus.
Before people travelled so routinely and often, or through many different available modes, viruses likely spread more slowly. And they were probably easier to contain. Now, it’s easy to see how quickly a virus can spread, similar to how fast something can go viral on social media. People are moving around the globe, traveling faster and more frequently than in previous times. The same is true of information, and its cousins misinformation and disinformation, shooting around the globe in seconds.
In one article I read that each person infected with Covid-19 will pass it to something like 2.2 other people. When I thought about how information is communicated, it seems to me the “viral” spread of messages could be transmitted more generously. Each tweet, post, meme, photo, etc. can be shared with dozens, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of others in a matter of seconds. Imagine if a real virus was this virulent and fast moving. We would be wiped out in no time.
In some ways, it’s impossible to separate the viral aspects of communications from the threat of the real virus, any virus, not just Covid-19. In times of crises, the communications and reporting of such events is critical. It’s imperative for people to understand what is going on, how to prepare or react, etc. from credible and up-to-date resources. However, in the age of social media, it’s easy for the wrong information to be disseminated broadly and accepted as truth. This can make the situation much worse, or give it the appearance of being better than it actually is.
When a crises occurs, it’s common for people to consult sources like the media, credible organizations, or governments for instructions. It’s challenging to know who to trust or follow with so many different messages flying around, trying to keep up with a virus that is likely still under tested and under reported. This is combined with other factors like world leaders who make inaccurate and/or misleading statements. Or governments who try to suppress or censor social media messaging from their citizens and control what gets printed where and by whom. This is the other side of what it means to “go viral.”