I am on my way to Füssen in Bavaria when news comes over the radio that all schools in the south of Germany will be closed for five weeks. I am spending my birthday in the mountains as I do every year. While just over the Alps in Northern Italy millions of people are on lockdown because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), in Germany, people go about their lives as normal. At a cafe in the centre of Füssen one elderly gentleman jokingly refuses to shake the hand of his friend as he joins him at their table for what looks like a regular Stammtisch or social gathering. “Corona!” he shouts theatrically before getting a slap on the elbow from his companion. Though both men are in the high-risk category and obviously informed about the dangers of the virus they are choosing to carry on with their daily routines with admirable calmness and humour. It is the same throughout the Allgäu. At the local supermarket shelves are fully stocked with water, sanitiser and yes, even toilet paper! In fact, in one aisle there is even a discount on toilet paper and they still can’t entice locals; and we’re talking about the good stuff here — an 8 pack of 3-ply rolls infused with camomile for 2.99 Euro. Londoners and New Yorkers would batter their neighbour for it.
At my hotel, a stone’s throw from the world-famous Neuschwanstein castle, the octogenarian owner is doing a lively trade for the time of the season. Guests consist mainly of young families and children mix freely in the hotel playground as their parents and grandparents mingle and share benches around the Weißensee. Old couples power past with their nordic walking sticks and there is no sense that the world is any different than it has always been. And in many ways it is no different. When asked if bookings have been affected by the virus our hotelier states that business is quite normal. In his opinion the threat is wildly overstated by the news and the government: “I think the panic is artificial. If they didn’t report on it, there would be a few more flu patients this year and that’s all. No-one would even notice. This is the best place to be. Clean air, few people — just stay fit.” His answer seems representative of the Allgäu’s response to the Coronavirus — rugged stoicism.
While the current situation is certainly more serious than a few more flu cases and the precautionary measures being instituted by the German government are surely warranted, his warning against media hype may be well-founded. In stark contrast to the Allgäu, in London this week some supermarkets were left looking like they had been looted as shoppers stockpiled toilet paper, hand sanitiser and water, leaving shelves empty and spreading panic throughout the city that shortages would ensue. Similar scenes have played out in Australia and the US. Dr. Steven Taylor, an expert on the psychology of pandemics, states that stockpiling is a response to perceived scarcity combined with a social “contagion effect” whereby people see others stockpile and feel that they should be doing the same. With world governments enforcing unprecedented (in living memory) lockdowns of public services and imposing strict self-isolation measures it is understandable that people would feel the sense of urgency Dr. Taylor describes.
However, pandemics in the age of fake news, click-bait and Social Media present yet another layer of anxiety: massive scale emotional contagion via social networks and online media.
A major study conducted by FaceBook in 2014 and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) found that positive and negative emotions expressed by other users on Social Media influence our individual mood providing evidence for mass-scale emotional contagion via social networks. Researchers found that when users saw more positive messages in their feed they also wrote more positive messages. Those who saw fewer negative messages wrote fewer negative messages while when the number of emotional messages (positive or negative) was reduced, users were less expressive overall.
How might this relate to the current COVID-19 pandemic? Social Networks are now the primary source of news for American adults. A 2018 Pew Research Centre study found that 68% of social media users got the news on social network platforms with 43% of Americans getting their news from FaceBook. FaceBook, Reddit and Twitter were the three top news-focused platforms with 73% of Reddit users, 67% of FaceBook users and 71% of Twitter users getting their news from there. Therefore, users of these platforms are susceptible to mass emotional contagion dictated by the type of news being shared on these platforms as well as the commentary of those sharing it.
An issue, however, for these news-focused social media platforms is that most users do not read full articles.The title of an article alone, the accompanying image or the poster’s commentary is most likely to influence individuals and others in their social network. A 2016 joint study by Columbia University and the INRIA showed that 59% of links shared on social media have never been clicked, meaning that most users comment on and share news without ever reading past the headline or the opinions of their network or the journalists pushing the story. One of the most shared news outlets on FaceBook — The Daily Mail — has plastered its website with scare-mongering stories about COVID-19 since the first deaths occurred in the UK forecasting worst-case scenarios and catastrophic potential numbers of fatalities along with salacious details about panic shopping and celebrity cases of the virus. The headlines are reckless and designed to spread panic. While other major news sources such as CNN and FOX which are shared widely on social media are taking a more measured approach to how they report on the pandemic, their 24-hour blanket coverage and political biases in reporting about the virus are contributing to anxiety and fear. A particularly concerning aspect of their coverage has been the lack of external, non-partisan medical experts and external, WHO or CDC spokespeople.
On Twitter, hashtags such as #CoronaApocalypse and #StayTheFHome which started out as a place to express feelings of anxiety and fear at the outset of the pandemic have given way to more useful hashtags such as #washyourhands — which includes accurate and useful measures to take directly from the WHO and CDC’s official response pages. However politicisation of the pandemic also regularly trends with #TrumpLiedPeopleDied being one of several partisan hashtags that have gained popularity.
A great deal of the anxiety expressed by individuals on social media stems from conflicting and unclear government approaches to the severity of the pandemic. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially pursued a different approach than his European counterparts. He employed a “herd immunity” approach with soft social distancing for at-risk groups with advice for those with expected cases to self isolate, hoping that the larger population would build up an immunity to the virus. This subsequently changed to a series of delaying measures before shifting to a Chinese-style suppression approach after being advised that delaying measures could result in up to 250,000 deaths in the UK. Many on Twitter have been quick to use the switch in approaches and the confusion as a political stick with which to beat the PM and in the US, partisan voices have also been quick to criticise the Trump Administration’s perceived waste of a head start on tackling the virus as a means to score political points. While it is natural for a scared population to expect leadership from their government in times of crisis, the reality is that COVID-19 is utterly new and no major, globalised western nation has been able to effectively prevent the spread of the virus. Take for example the cases of Italy and Spain — two of Europe’s worst effected countries. Italy has a populist right coalition in charge while Spain has a populist left coalition. Neither one has sufficiently stymied the virus and both, like the UK and the US, hesitated at first before imposing similar draconian lockdowns of each nation. COVID-19 does not care a jot for political ideologies and those attaching partisan political commentaries on social media are more likely to add to panic, anger and division rather than seeing themselves and others through this unprecedented period.
As more nations impose suppression tactics and individuals are mandated to work from home and limit their exposure to others, exponentially more people will be reliant on the internet for work, entertainment and for news of COVID-19. Apart from the expected anxiety many will feel having been forced to stay at home, how and how much they access information about COVID-19 will play a major role in how populations react to our current global predicament. Cooped up all day getting reports and commentary on the crisis from politically partisan news outlets and commentators as well as following scare-mongering stories of panic shopping and live counts of deaths per country from the likes of the Daily Mail will likely lead to massive emotional contagion which will exacerbate panic shopping and lead to increased social tensions. Already there have been countless cases of individuals being shamed for stockpiling and even “cancelled” for uninformed opinions about the crisis, indicating a form of digital vigilantism and unhealthy obsession the virus borne out of social media usage. Even where well-intentioned, acts like these will negatively impact everyone. Ideally we will see something of a siege mentality take over with social media users choosing to accentuate the humorous, positive or useful. Of course those who restrict their online usage to seeking out news about the virus direct from WHO, the CDC and limited broadcasts from reputable news outlets will weather out the crisis without undue emotional stress.
However, best of all may be to adopt some German stoicism. As my host in Füssen recommends, cut back on the news, get out in the fresh air (if possible) and stay fit because worrying serves no purpose. The sentiment is echoed by the FaceBook study on mass emotional contagion via social media. Seeing less emotive news about COVID-19 is likely to result in a more pragmatic response by individuals to the situation. Sometimes it takes a crisis for teams of computer scientists, health experts and government officials to figure out what mountain folk know implicitly.