Posted By: Savannah Sewell (MARF 2021)
Ask yourselves, “Where have I received the most information or support during the COVID-19 pandemic?” What answers spring to mind? Well, I’ll be pretty honest in saying that, for myself, it has come mainly from social media. My fundamental source of information, entertainment, interests, ideas, and communication during the last 14 months has come solely from a small collection of social media platforms and, by extension, my phone. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even TikTok have been enormous COVID-19 information and communication resources during this pandemic. In this blog, we’re going to explore the differences between them and the advantages and disadvantages that accompany being one of their daily users.
Sarah Jaworski, Assistant Curator of the Communication Collection at Ingenium, Canada’s National Museums of Science and Innovation, is currently working on a unique project concerning born-digital platforms, focusing on TikTok, answering how and why digitally born media are essential to the historical record. Sarah is looking into how museums could collect and archive content and applications that only exist digitally, and how the applications themselves play an essential role in communicating. Sarah will be lending us some of their opinions about the social media platforms along the way.
Under each social media platform, we have formed opinion-based evaluations of how effective each platform is at disseminating information about COVID-19, and the technological features they have that helped connect communities over the past 14 months.
Also, let me be clear that this blog, in no way, supports following click-bait articles, social media influencers, or any other advice for that matter, blindly. Be a cautious consumer. Research advice given on medical platforms, cross-examine posted information with Public Health and Government of Canada guidelines, and always ensure your personal information is kept safe and secure while using the internet.
The overarching theme of Twitter is set by the short character limit, the status of certified accounts, and the quippy subtext of most tweets. In 2010, a study explored the drive for individuals to use Twitter according to a scale of gratification. The study highlighted; content, technology, process, and social (Liu et al.), motives, then support each of those driving factors with possible intentions. “The eight motives include self-documentation, information sharing, social interaction, entertainment, passing time, self-expression, medium appeal, and convenience” (2010). It is not a huge jump to say that these virtual drives and motives are still the basis of Twitter’s usership today, if not more pointedly to quickly call public figures out on behaviour and cultural missteps on a public forum. During the pandemic, Twitter has been an asset for many to digest quick and concise information, news alerts, and connecting those stuck in their homes with limited resources.
How do you view Twitter? As a platform for angry, patriarchal politicians to bully candidates with new ideas? As an origin for memes, mainly consisting of fast food establishments bashing each others’ lack of available ice cream? Or as a space for esoteric discussion on a platform built for accessibility (the irony is looming)?
Either way, you, as an individual, see it, it can be: aggressive, create quick reactions, and disseminate information like a wildfire, good or bad. Twitter can be analyzed further by questioning the power that it holds within certain populations. World leaders, such as Donald Trump, have been banned from Twitter, as well as all other social media, for the kind of violence and mobilization that the platform has the ability to create.
Twitter is, in my opinion, the social media app that requires one of the highest levels of scrutiny when using. Though still present, only small percentages of Tweets are satire, and countless groups use it as a tool to incite violence and hate speech. Twitter has been under fire for years because of the lack of control it has over its users’ messages. Though, I don’t think it is likely to change quickly, I think it is a change that is necessary for the continued success of the company and the safety of its audience.
*Sarah did not feel comfortable commenting on a platform that is not currently in personal use.
In July of 2020, Richard Saitz and Gary Schwitzer discussed the failures to communicate information during the pandemic in their article, Communicating Science in the Time of a Pandemic, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, highlighting specific communication issues with new releases and short, catchy titles. This is the main problem with the communication of COVID and vaccine information on Facebook. Truthfully, it is probably, at its core, one of the most significant communication issues that Facebook has. The majority of the usership on Facebook sees the title of an article and quickly shares it without further investigation; if there is further investigation, Facebook does not control the content published to ensure it is factual or correct. The perpetuation of inaccurate information, dangerous opinions, and pseudoscientific non-research quickly perpetrate the ranks of the slightly less tech-savvy, average Facebook user.
There is a certain high level of anonymity on Facebook. Though there is a certification process similar to Twitter or Instagram, it does not seem to draw celebrities in the same way. Therefore, making way for the average user to prove less and less about themselves. Some accounts are vague, fake, or lacking any personal information that would make someone directly responsible for their page and posts outside of the virtual world.
For example, one of the most recent cases of information circling Facebook is the click bait articles surrounding the potential for infertility associated with the COVID-19 vaccine. These claims are false and dangerous, repeatedly disproved by medical magazines, reports, health networks, public health, and countless new articles. However, because of the usership and power of click-bait articles on Facebook, Google searches for Vaccine Infertility have risen by 34,900% since the beginning of the vaccine roll-out this winter (July 2021).
I almost stopped using Facebook completely during the pandemic. When I lacked connection with communities, I got rid of the Facebook app on my phone but continued to use the Facebook messenger app daily. Facebook still appears to be struggling with its close association with misinformation (Newburger, 2021) (Ndiaye, 2021). Buchanan and Benson did a study in 2019 about the spreading of disinformation online, which specifically studied Facebook. (Buchanan & Benson, 2019). When Facebook comes up in conversation within my community these days, it usually concerns Facebook Marketplace or the Facebook Messenger app.
As for the technical features of the platform, the Facebook navigation bar is along the top of the screen on both mobile and PC versions. There are quite a few features, including the News Feed, a Groups tab, a Watch tab, and Facebook Marketplace tab. After re-downloading the app, I was greeted by a banner at the top of my Newsfeed asking users to “Take a COVID-19 Survey” and a notice in the Facebook Marketplace tab reminding buyers and sellers to respect local COVID-19 guidelines.
When looking at the Watch tab, there are a few striking resemblances to the user experience of TikTok. As a first-time user, the Watch feature requests you choose your interests before viewing videos. Once you proceed past that step, the videos can be viewed in a category labelled “For You.” In contrast to TikTok, the videos do not fill the whole screen but rather look like average Facebook posts that include videos.
Instagram plays a massive role in my reality, constructing a large portion of my escapist screen time and my communication with the outside world. However, is Instagram real? No, of course not. The performed aspect of each individuals’ “authentic” reality is a common critique of the image-sharing platform, some even going as far as paying to augment their Instagram posts to gain clout. So, how is it useful during the pandemic?
Well, just like all other social media platforms, businesses use Instagram to market and share information. During the pandemic, Instagram has been an excellent tool for sharing opening dates, availability of products for small businesses, and even pick-up information. It has been a tool for companies and people to stay connected: many share big life decisions and events on Instagram through photos and a short commentary to inform family and friends who could not see them in recent months.
Instagram, like Facebook, is full of inaccurate information, perpetuated by clout chasers, fame-seekers, and meme pages that make light of the pandemic.
I use Instagram daily. It is my primary social media application. During the pandemic, I used it to keep up to date with the artists, local businesses, and family and friends in my community. I frequently saw posts of folks who had just received their vaccines or having socially distanced visits with loved ones.
On the tech side of things, Instagram introduced, and continues to include, a banner at the bottom of posts containing information about COVID-19. The banner links to a “COVID-19 Information Centre” for Facebook and its affiliated applications. The link opens within the application and includes facts about the vaccines, recognized health organizations to follow, and stickers to share with friends.
In August of 2020, Instagram introduced a new function called Reels (Instagram, 2020). Reels are short-form video content, 15-30 seconds long, which can be set to music. The videos can be viewed in a centrally located Reels tab and the top right corner of the Explore tab. Each video has a vertically oriented engagement bar on the bottom right corner, which is very similar to the layout and functionality of TikTok. Overall, Instagram does provide so many other features such as still photos, videos incorporated in a regular post, IGTV lives, and stories.
As a user, I did notice a lot of videos bearing the TikTok watermark while scrolling through Instagram. I also find different ways to create content a little daunting and mainly use the stories and messaging features to stay connected with close friends.
TikTok has grown in an incredibly hospitable and topical space as the COVID-19 pandemic has developed. As TikTok gained popularity and the pandemic was hitting North America, the two coincided with an incredible spike in usership and community building. The platform has created a virtual space for both education and escapism. From baking bread, renovating Victorian homes, doing your math homework, or connecting with a variety of accepting communities, TikTok has space and use for everyone. The usership of TikTok is still very young, with the majority of users under the age of 30. However, I encourage all who are looking for connections to explore the platform for a new experience.
During the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, TikTok users engaged with members of their households for challenges like family Olympic games, generational walk-ins, and even full family dances. These trends include the user and members of their family, engaging in games, fun, or creative dances on screen and are published on the app.
These viral trends are a lens to view the pandemic, which the historical record has traditionally been lacking, within households and from a performative view. However, some could critique the app as creating an “inauthentic” form of performed culture; we can also explore that conversation from a place of art and escapism.
Why are these trends so popular? What about them makes so many people want to join in? Did they aid in the growing pains that came along with being stuck with your partner or family indoors for months on end?
On the other side of TikTok, we have ScienceTok. This face of the platform boasts scientists, doctors, students, and professionals using the platform to communicate and educate the public on complicated concepts of the pandemic in an accessible way.
There are, of course, corners of the platform that contain unsavoury behaviour, and inaccurate information. However, just as any internet use, be a conscious consumer, question legitimacy, peoples’ qualifications, and above all, consider public health and safety.
TikTok’s user experience feels familiar if you have used older applications like Facebook and Instagram. It has a vertically oriented feed, known as the For You Page, or FYP, and it has recordings features within the application. It stands out among other applications through the limit to video length, which is built upon the foundations created by Vine and Musical.ly. The latter of these was purchased by ByteDance, the creators of TikTok, in 2016 (Tidy & Smith Galer, 2020). These short videos can be made using sound clips, and you can speed up or slow down the sound while recording. Alongside these innovative features that help users make videos, the TikTok algorithm allows users to connect to communities quickly.
I personally downloaded TikTok in the summer of 2020, while stuck inside on lockdown, and was surprised that it only took about an hour before my FYP was full of folks from my community sharing their experiences, knowledge, and humour. Sharing videos with my sister gave me incentives to go out on walks even if I wasn’t in the mood, to get video content to make new TikToks.
In the end, I stopped using TikTok because I was able to see some of the content on Instagram, and the application was a drain on my phone’s battery. I re-downloaded the app in February of 2021 to start my research project. Social media applications tend to evolve very quickly, and I witnessed the evolution of TikTok in the winter and spring of 2021. There was an increase in advertising and Live videos on my For You Page. Scientific and educational posts occasionally had links to websites that opened within the application, for example, a link to a chemical’s Wikipedia page.
As we move out of the portions of the pandemic that force individuals to stay home and limit interactions with others, the question arises; where do we stand with social media? Will there be a downtrend of usership?
What do you think of social media? Have any of these platforms helped you during the pandemic? Have you found new communities or skills because of them?
The original intent for the internet, and accessibility to the tools that the internet has provided, was the transmission of information. Arguably, this still is the primary source of inspiration for the growth and ingenuity of the world wide web, but is social media now the best vector for that communication? All of the platforms mentioned in this blog have implemented banners, warnings, and content filters for information surrounding COVID-19 and vaccines. Regardless of how you feel about the information being presented, it should act as a catalyst for your social media habits and perhaps some new thought processes surrounding how you receive COVID information, or escape it.
Certain communication technology has become intangible in a born-digital world. In her presentation “Going Viral: collecting social media,” Foteini Aravani, the Curator of Digital Collections at the Museum of London, said that museums need to acknowledge that our audiences are not only consumers of content that we share digitally, but are creators of digitally born history, culture, art and artifacts (Aravani, 2021). Digital applications, mainly social media apps, are the modern versions of communication technology. Depending on the application, they can appear to be the convergence of many older technologies, including the television, the book/newspaper, the radio, and the telephone. They represent an important part of our growing technological history and are changing at a rapid speed!
Algorithm: A set of rules or steps that a computer program uses to achieve a specific goal. (Merriam-Webster, n.d.)
Clickbait: Something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest. (Merriam-Webster, n.d.)
Clout: A term used over social media, specifically Instagram, meaning the power or influence that the user possesses.
Digital Born: Content that is created and exists in a digital format. (Yale University, n.d.)
Meme: An amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media. (Merriam-Webster, n.d.)
Usership: Here, representing the cast and variety of individuals who use the platform regularly.
Special thanks to Ian M. Fraser and Janine M. Schweitzer for their generous support of the 2021 Margaret Angus Research Fellowship!
Bibliography (Click to open)
Aravani, F. (2021). Going Viral: collecting social media. MuseumNext Digital Summit 2021. Digital.
Buchanan, T., & Benson, V. (2019, December 17). Spreading Disinformation on Facebook: Do Trust in Message Source, Risk Propensity, or Personality Affect the Organic Reach of “Fake News”? Social Media + Society. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2056305119888654
Hazlegreaves, S. (2021, July 14). Google searches for vaccine infertility increased by 34,900% following misinformation incident. Open Access Government. https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/google-searches-vaccine-infertility-misinformation/115347/
Instagram. (2020, August 05). Introducing Instagram Reels. (Instagram) Retrieved February 2021, from https://about.instagram.com/blog/announcements/introducing-instagram-reels-announcement
Liu, I.L., Cheung, C.M., & Lee, M.K. (2010). Understanding Twitter Usage: What Drive People Continue to Tweet. PACIS.
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Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Clickbait. Retrieved from In Meriam-Webster.com dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/algorithm
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Meme. Retrieved from In Meriam-Webster.com dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/algorithm
Ndiaye, A. (2021, March 10). Together Against Covid-19 Misinformation: A New Campaign in Collaboration with the WHO. Retrieved from Facebook for Media: https://www.facebook.com/formedia/blog/together-against-covid-19-misinformation-a-new-campaign-in-partnership-with-the-who
Newburger, E. (2021, July 17). Facebook refutes Biden’s claim that it is ‘killing people’ with vaccine misinformation. Retrieved from CNBC Tech: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/17/facebook-refutes-biden-claim-that-its-killing-people-with-vaccine-misinformation.html
Saitz, R., & Schwitzer, G. (2020). Communicating Science in the Time of a Pandemic. JAMA, 324(5), 443–444. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2020.12535
Tidy, J., & Smith Galer, S. (2020, August 5). TikTok: The Story of a Social Media Giant. (BBC) Retrieved July 16, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53640724
Yale University. (n.d.). What does “Born Digital” mean. Retrieved from Primary Sources by Yale: https://primarysources.yale.edu/what-does-born-digital-mean