The making of Covid-19. How do social media matter?

Stefania Vicari, the University of Sheffield and Zheng Yang, Soochow University

How do social media matter?
Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

When the pandemic reached the Western news in January 2020, it was hard to escape the exoticness attached to it by most media coverage. The lonely journal of a young Chinese social worker in locked down Wuhan became an educated and accessible clickbait, a means to relate to what then was the coronavirus.  Guo Jing’s diary and similar sources, challenged by the local authorities while loved by the Western media, became a means to talk about fears of life and death in China, picture hygienic horrors in live animal markets in Wuhan and point at Chinese censorship. Ultimately, they became a means to attribute blame and responsibilities, to ‘far away China’.  The reassuring distancing of this ‘exoticness’, we now know, would not last very long. The blaming, well that got rather complicated in the months to follow. 

When we think of the media, and even more when it comes to social media, we often use universalistic lenses: we take functions, uses and values as universally valid, primarily drawing on Western or ‘Global North’ contexts and models. In what are now extremely topical debates about data, datafication and AI - entities tightly embedded in contemporary media ecosystems - we also usually overlook the way structures (e.g., platform infrastructures), but also uses (e.g., everyday social media practices) are situated in context, in socio-economic, political and cultural terms. For instance, a universalistic take would prevent us from understanding the unusual journey of Guo Jing’s diary, from subversive and ostracised digital trace in the Chinese media ecosystem to clickbait in the Western one.

In our chapter for  Being Human Under Covid-19, we take Guo Jing’s story as a starting point to reflect on the entanglement of Covid-19, humans and social media in China and in the West at the start of the pandemic. Our writing draws on a 48-hour snapshot of Weibo and Twitter, the most popular microblogging platforms in the two regions. It reflects on how our collective understanding of the pandemic in China and in the West might have been partially shaped by the state (China) and free market (West) capitalist values embedded in the social media ecosystems thriving in the two contexts.

Whose voices, what values?  

As we discuss in the chapter and expand upon here, at the (official) outbreak of the pandemic, the most visible framing of Covid-19 on Weibo was entirely dependent on state-controlled media (e.g., People’s Daily news group, CCTV broadcaster). Visibility on social media depends on a number of factors, but here we are specifically referring to posts talking about Covid-19 that were most frequently reposted or quoted on the platform. The fact that coverage produced by this very specific type of accounts was dominating Covid-19-related content likely had an impact on what would become the most accessible - and available - ‘Covid-19 information’ within the Chinese social media ecosystem, now growingly a proxy of the broader society. In other words, it is reasonable to speculate that the tight relationships between social and legacy media companies, national policy-making and regulatory authorities made the public framing of Covid 19 tightly contained within state-aligned narratives.

On English Twitter, instead, the most popular (i.e., retweeted) content was posted by highly politicised and polarising accounts, like that of then US President Donald Trump, high profile Trump supporter James Woods and Democratic representative Ted Lieu. And, needless to say, these accounts were not necessarily always sharing information that was reliable or in line with public health policies. In fact, a few months after our snapshot, Twitter-the-corporation was under pressure to develop automated or semi-automated criteria to flag misleading information circulating on the platform. And, perhaps not surprisingly, a tweet by Donald Trump was soon subjected to the resulting filtering mechanisms. These dynamics, directly dependent on the inability of democratic governments and social media companies to agree on a vision of ‘good’ platform governance led to the Western outcry over social media misinformation and conspiracies related to COVID-19, as discussed here by Warren Pearce.

In becoming ubiquitous and almost unavoidable infrastructures, social media ecosystems contribute to defining what meanings, symbols and beliefs get prioritised in the public understanding of societal issues. But this contribution, depending on where it unravels, comes with the intertwining of different public, corporate, and state values. Academic research, like recent work by Lianrui Jia, is increasingly focusing on social media platforms’ historical and contextual trajectories and on the way these trajectories influence platform designs and governance within frames of reference that may not always align with the Western liberal democratic model of free speech and free markets. But how do these trajectories also affect the way we understand global crises? In other words, how does the political economy of contemporary social media ecosystems intertwine with existing cultural repertoires in shaping the way we understand ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘friends’ and ‘foes’ or ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ in global crises? 

If you have any comments on this piece, please get in touch via email or on Twitter @stefaniavicari.

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