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I’m not an epidemiologist but…

The COVID-19 pandemic has been arguably the first global crisis in the age of social media – Twitter only had 500k users at the start of 2008. Few coronavirus influencers have backgrounds in public health, never mind epidemiology. While some appear to have been deliberately seeding misleading information, others seem to believe that any clever person armed with a few hours’ research can add valuable insight so long as it’s caveated with the notorious phrase “I’m not an epidemiologist but…”

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability; essentially it’s the inability to recognise one’s lack of ability. Gaining a small amount of knowledge in an area you previously knew nothing about can make you feel as though you’re suddenly an expert. Very few of us had much expertise in infectious diseases a couple of months ago, and yet we’re now comfortable speaking knowledgeably about asymptomatic transmission, flattening the curve and an R0 below 1.

When challenged, many of these “viral virologists” have defended themselves with the Silicon Valley credo of moving fast and breaking things; that imperfect information is better than none at all. The algorithms that decide what we see on social media generally promote content that delivers the highest engagement, and shocking or emotional content gets people’s attention far more than sober, science-based reporting. Traditional media, with its laborious fact-checking and information-gathering processes has struggled to react. To plagiarise Jonathan Swift, a tweet can travel halfway around the world while a newspaper is still putting on its shoes.

But things may not be as grim as all that. Surveys from across the world show increased consumption of traditional media, with trust in established broadcasters and publishers soaring. The declining influence of the older mass media was arguably always exaggerated and falsely tied to its declining commercial fortunes.

None of the social media platforms produce content and when people say they “get their news from Facebook or Twitter” in reality they are largely getting their news from the same places they always did; it’s their money that is going elsewhere. This has become even more apparent in the current crisis, where the public’s desire for facts has driven them in greater numbers to reliable sources, but the enormous drop in advertising is leaving many media organisations facing layoffs and in many cases permanent closure.
For organisations and individuals alike, it’s a time when a bit of social media distancing wouldn’t go astray.

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