How to use the internet during the coronavirus crisis

I don’t know about you, but to me the internet has never felt more human.

WhatsApp groups are sprouting in every road in the country. There are family FaceTimes and Zoom parties, let alone Skype dates. Never before have our social lives pulsed so decisively through those precious cables. For the first time, I think I know what social media really means.

Online platforms really are now thoroughfares and public squares in every way that matters. As we draw the internet even closer day by day, the line between our analogue and digital lives becomes even more blurry and less meaningful. And as all this happens, one thing is already abundantly clear amongst the uncertainty: moments like this are when information is at its most valuable – and also most dangerous.

Exactly how the Covid-19-related internet can cause harm is something we’re still working out as we go along. Claims that drinking bleach will cure coronavirus can be harmful to you in a glaring way; a man died after self-medicating with another touted cure.

But then there are collective dangers too: spreading pictures of people panic-buying will make more people panic -buy. Spreading conspiracy theories about the “medical deep state” will undermine trust in public health advice at a time in which such trust is vital. But it goes beyond disinformation: simply being immersed in a sea of coronavirus infographics every day will take a toll on the mental health of all of us in ways both obvious and subtle.

A powerful emotional mix of dread and hope, anxiety and anger is enough to propel a lot of such content around the world in completely unpredictable ways. But never one to miss an opportunity, the usual suspects – hostile states, the far rightand clickbait merchants — are each exploiting Covid-19 too.

I spend most of my day pulling apart all of this. Informationally, as well as pathogenically, we can be hosts, vectors, super spreaders or hygienically cleansed. As we’re all resetting and remaking our lives and habits, I have seven rules for you. Preachy? Probably. High-minded? That too. But give them a try; they might actually help.

Guard against outrage

Even in normal times, outrage is your biggest risk of becoming vulnerable to online manipulation. It is easy to fire up, reaches deep into your sense of right and wrong, and usually spurs a reaction that makes people on the opposing social or political side outraged too. A fake letter purportedly from the Ukrainian health ministry, for instance, caused riots to break out as outraged locals tried to block the return of “infected” evacuees from China. Now that it’s easier to be angry than ever, the internet is not a place to be outraged within.

Slow. Down.

We usually share online content when we feel like it, not when we think about it. The things that tend to fly around the internet are those that sink hooks into our primordial psychologies. Miracle cures soar on the wings of forlorn hope. Empty shelves are propelled into the sight of millions by the panic that they cause. Raw emotion is not a good principle to determine what gets seen and what doesn’t, and simply slowing down allows the more considered and considerate parts of your thinking to kick in.

When it comes to actually learning about the world, remember: The Information that Finds You Isn’t Necessarily the Information you Want to Find. Serendipity – stumbling across new information – can be great, but this isn’t a world where the good information necessarily floats to the top. Which brings us to…

What you see on your social media feed is curated by processes that can be gamed by malicious actors or mindless profiteers. It’s full of messages borne there through virtue of the raw emotion that they inspire. In the coming weeks, it will feel like an endless trudge through a sometimes uplifting, but more usually panicky place. Just thumbing your way through it is a bad strategy.

Use the internet proactively

Make an effort to find what you want and whom you want. Forge trusted relationships and find the information you need online. But do so through a deliberate, conscious force of will. Remake your online lockdown life anew, don’t let it remake you.

Forget the blue ticks

Everyone’s compass to navigate the maelstrom of competing claims is trust. Here, we need to lean away from online reputation alone. Of course, there are plenty of valid voices online, but claims made from people with equally large followings, fanbases, blue ticks and even mainstream political platforms include that the virus was man-made, is a bioweapon, was funded by Bill Gates, and on and on. We rely on online metrics of visibility and popularity much more than we like to think we do. Horribly spoofable, they’re the first thing that online manipulators target and the first thing we need to get rid of.

Practice digital distancing

Even if you do all of these things, there’s a huge final hurdle to overcome. Even steering clear of disinformation and manipulation, immersing yourself in an entirely truthful world of death rates, ventilators and R0 scores can be harmful too. Rehearsing our own sense of personal helplessness towards something we cannot control every day will stoke feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety. Just as we practice social distancing, digital distancing will be necessary as well. Spend ten minutes a day catching up on what’s happening, but don’t let it become your entire day.

You might be reading all this, pitying those poor other people who fall for the miracle cures and the conspiracy theories. But there’s information out there that can harm you too, and – like everyone else – it won’t contradict your general view of the world. You are already immune to being contradicted. Yet, we’re at our most vulnerable not when our beliefs are being challenged but when they’re being confirmed. When we’re nodding our head, muttering “I always knew it”, that’s when we are in danger.

So above everything else is an eighth, golden rule. Now more than ever: think about the information you consume as a diet. It has health consequences for you and the people around you. Preach over it. Oh, and remember to wash your hands.

Coronavirus coverage from WIRED

😓 How did coronavirus start and what happens next?

❓ Does alcohol kill coronavirus? The biggest myths, busted

🎮 World of Warcraft perfectly predicted our coronavirus panic

✈️ Flight data shows the huge scale of Covid-19

👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment

Why You Need A Website