21 July 2021

Pandemic shmandemic

COVID-19 The Back Page

Twitter’s a scary place at the best of times.

The longer we spend lost among the #trending topics, the more it seems like the algorithm was designed to show us only the most depraved, depressing and panic-inducing news from around the world.

And yet, we can’t stop.

There’s now even a word for the phenomenon of continually and compulsively searching Twitter for bad news: doomscrolling.

At the outset of the covid-19 pandemic last year, social media fuelled a lot of the widespread panic that accompanied the first round of lockdowns. As our timelines filled with reports of rising numbers and worsening symptoms, the global public (by and large) seemingly turned overnight into a social distancing, hand washing, toilet paper-hungry mass.

For once, social media proved itself useful (except for the toilet paper thing, that was annoying).

But a year later, it seems that the world has doomscrolled itself out.

Researchers from the Department of Communication in the US have released a study proposing that we have become desensitised to covid-related news, which in turn has led to a marked decrease in precaution. This is in spite of increasing fatalities and the appearance of the delta variant.

Over 11 months, the authors tracked the “anxiety levels” expressed linguistically in online news articles covering covid, as well as related user tweets containing “covid,” “covid-19,” “pandemic,” and “coronavirus.” They then correlated that information with the death toll of covid-19 in the US over that same period.

They found that while users’ anxiety rose sharply at the pandemic’s beginning, they soon became “desensitized to the increased covid-19 threat and their emotional responses were blunted over time”.

“… as the casualty count climbed, news articles seemingly lost their ability to elicit anxiety among readers.”

This is a worry for science communicators and policy makers the world over who would prefer that everyone maintain 2020 levels of covid paranoia. But as we discussed last week, deliberately trying to spook the public into compliance isn’t always the best course of action either.

Boo!

In your humble Back Page correspondent’s opinion, the problem lies with social media’s unique ability to overwhelm with information. Any topic, no matter how horrifying, can be run into the ground by the relentless algorithm.

So perhaps the best cure for covid apathy might be for all of us to step away from our screens completely. Go read a book, spend time with family, smell the flowers (within a strict one-hour outdoor exercise period of course). Then return to Twitter, mentally and emotionally refreshed, without a care in the world …

Ready to be terrified all over again.

If you doomscroll past something particularly doom-laden, doom-email felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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