• Annie Bocock

Why We Can’t Stop Talking About the Coronavirus

Updated: Apr 3

It is a stupid question. We’re living in an unprecedented health emergency, a pandemic, and it affects us all. With strict guidelines in place to keep us safe in our homes, our whole way of life has changed for a while or maybe even forever. So naturally it’s going to be a primary focus of conversation, through Instagram trends, email openers and think pieces like this.

But this has been the case for a while. This study done by Fernando Bermejo, the faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center, shows us that the media has been fascinated by the virus since around late-January. And with the steady rise in media attention, we’ve been talking about it more on social media: research done by the social media analytics platform Sprinklr has documented a steady rise in how many times we’ve mentioned “coronavirus” and related terms in our posts, and an interactive graph of this rise can be found in this article by Vox. Our exposure to coverage online and through social media has led to speculation, panic, indifference, hope, dismissal and everything in between over the past few months, so our response to that is to talk about it.

Graph by Fernando Bermejo of the Berkman Klien Center

I mentioned above that there is a clear, primary reason for all the attention we give to COVID-19: it poses a threat to all of us. Even before it was declared a pandemic it was known to be deadlier than outbreaks of similar viruses like SARS and we knew it posed a great danger to “at-risk” individuals (those who are older and those with pre-existing conditions like asthma), and it isn’t particularly rare to find someone who fits into that group.

With this danger comes information about how we can stay safe. Information, misinformation, accusations of scaremongering, anger about misinformation…

Misinformation hasn't been easy to avoid. We’ve all been susceptible to it at some point, we've believed ourselves that sanitizer isn't useful at all (or that it's better than washing your hands), we've believed that there will be food (and toilet paper) shortages, we've believed that if we don't panic buy that we won't be able to get necessities when the time comes around because everyone will still be bulk buying... We all have had our own ideas on what next steps the government should be taking and especially which protective measures we should be taking to make us safe. This isn't surprising. Research has found that people who primarily use social media to get information on the virus, which may be growing as social media usage is booming, are more likely to report seeing made-up news. This is one way that misinformation can spread.

With this comes anger, weirdly, as differences in what people know about the virus and what we should be doing can cause conflict and in some cases more public slander. I'm sure over the past few weeks we've all seen (or maybe even experienced) anger towards people stockpiling goods, not obeying social distancing rules, "overreacting" or "underreacting" about the seriousness of the virus and people not staying home.

But hope has also played a part, from everyone rallying behind key workers and employees who’ve faced issues with their employers to people globally spreading messages of support and hope to their communities and beyond.

Whilst researching for this blog I found something interesting. This graph from the same research I cited earlier shows the difference of coverage between the coronavirus over the last month, Trump’s election by US media in November 2016 and the Brexit referendum by UK media in June-July 2016. I thought the coverage of Brexit was overwhelming but coronavirus trumps it. This made me think about something I had been musing over for a while: where we feel comfortable talking about COVID-19. People, I believe, felt more reluctant to talk about the other two events in public in comparison to the coronavirus, despite the fact they will also affect us all in some way. Because they're politicised, they may not want to overtly cause conflict.

But isn't this politicised?

Something we seem to be forgetting is that we've voted our leaders in and that they're dealing with this crisis however they, ultimately, see fit. They have also potentially been making decisions about our healthcare systems for years before this and it can show in how prepared our hospitals have been. This is somewhat a political issue yet we're not afraid in the slightest to talk about it, to friends, families, colleagues, customers and everyone in between.

Graph by Fernando Bermejo of the Berkman Klien Center

The way we talk about COVID-19 is interesting. It will also change with what we know about the virus and the precautions our governments use to contain it. But we can see clearly, even now, the way we talk about it and how much we talk about it is on a scale unprecedented to anything we've seen before.


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