Social media and coronavirus shaming: Fighting a toxic combination

Noble Horvath

In the spring, Rick Rose drew the wrath of strangers after he practically shouted on Facebook that he wasn’t buying a face mask. Two months later, he contracted COVID-19 — and, he posted, he was struggling to breathe. Days later, on July 4, he was dead. That post, among the […]

In the spring, Rick Rose drew the wrath of strangers after he practically shouted on Facebook that he wasn’t buying a face mask. Two months later, he contracted COVID-19 — and, he posted, he was struggling to breathe. Days later, on July 4, he was dead.

That post, among the Ohio man’s final public words on Facebook, attracted attention in the form of more than 3,100 “haha” laughing face emoji and a torrent of criticism from strangers.

“If they would have known him, they would have loved him like everybody else did,” says Tina Heschel, mother of the 37-year-old Rose. She says she’s “tired of all the hate.”

“I just want him to rest,” she says.

Shaming people who get sick or don’t follow the rules in a public health crisis has been a thing since well before coronavirus, researchers say. But the warp speed and reach of social media in the pandemic era gives the practice an aggressive new dimension.

“It’s like someone just turned up the volume on stigmas that were already there,” says University of Pennsylvania professor David Barnes, who has studied pandemics and stigmatization.

People shame or stigmatize when they feel threatened by something. They need an explanation, and they find a scapegoat. It helps them reaffirm their thinking and make sense of what’s happening. That’s an important notion during a pandemic, which can feel vague and invisible.

“There’s never been a society that hasn’t moralized disease, ever,” Barnes says.

Social media sites like Facebook take this practice, which used to be confined to social circles or by geography, and scale it to mass proportions, making it effectively limitless.

“It’s changed the expectation of being able to speak up,” says Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist who studies the impact of social media as director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “Everyone has a voice now.”

And those voices are used.

When a Florida sheriff said in August that his deputies wouldn’t be allowed to wear masks except in limited circumstances, Twitter users swiftly branded him a “#COVIDIOT.” When doctors diagnosed Ecuador’s first coronavirus case earlier this year, pictures circulated within hours on social media showing the retired school teacher unconscious and intubated in her hospital bed.

Rose’s death was reported by national media, and visitors from around the country have stopped at his Facebook page to post messages or memes shaming him. Many also left messages wishing him well or scolding those who criticized.

Shaming can help people feel reassured that they have done things right and that the other person must have made a mistake, says Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies social media. She calls this “magical protection and fantasy.”

“It’s a way of putting a wall between ourselves and the people who are getting sick,” she says.

Social media also gives people isolated in a pandemic a quick way to join communities that share their beliefs. And when someone joins a group, that broader identity makes it easy to pile on.

“You behave in ways that you would not behave individually,” Rutledge says.

People may not even realize that they are piling on as they click an emoji or leave a comment while scrolling through their feed. Social media, Turkle says, can make shaming very addictive.

“They’re not even addicted to the particular content anymore. They’re just sort of addicted to the process of participating,” she says.

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