Social media and Covid-19 – what it tells us about human nature

A few weeks ago, before Covid-19 had really hit, my Facebook feed began filling up with Useful Advice on How To Avoid It. Almost all of it was rubbish: urban myths, given credence because they were repeated to the point where they had become ubiquitous.

My favourite was the one about keeping the mouth and throat moist by drinking water every 15 minutes. Apparently this was going to wash the virus down into the stomach before it could take hold, where the good old stomach acid was going to deal with it. The idea was rubbish, of course. The first thing a virus does when it enters the body, which most do via the mouth, nose or eyes, is to attack cells. Then you’ve got it. It’s in your system and you can’t wash it away. Nor will the digestive system deal with it: Covid-19 has been detected in stool samples.

Advice of the ‘wash it down the throat’ sort is in the same league as the ‘inhalation chambers’ that were popular as a ‘preventative’ during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Again, the idea was that the virus would be killed in the nose and throat before it could lodge in the lungs. Actually, all these public gathering places did was spread the disease.

Another funny one was the idea that you could, somehow, cook the virus to death inside your nose. Apparently a temperature of 133 degrees F (56.1 degrees C) suffices, if it’s sustained for a while. Setting aside the point that it’s going to be too late (see above), it turns out that this is also going to cook your nose and throat. Apparently a temperature of 112 degrees F (44 degrees C) over a period suffices to do mischief, so I have this vision of queues of people at emergency rooms, all with severe internal nose and respiratory tract burns. (How can people breathe in hotter air temperatures, you ask? Well, the nose cools the incoming air, so it isn’t so hot when it hits those sensitive mucus membranes).

What’s the answer? Well, it’s the obvious one. Ignore Facebook and social media, except where it tells you to listen to the government health authorities. The messaging from government health authorities is scientifically backed. It’s also up to date. We’re early in the learning curve about Covid-19, and new information will arrive, which health authorities will reflect.

So go check out your local health authority’s advice. Check it out now, and follow what they say. Here’s New Zealand’s.

All this, to me, is no-brainer stuff. Virus transmission mechanisms are well understood. A virus can be inhaled if you walk through an airborne cloud of micro-droplets, so keeping your distance is sensible. Personally I think 2 metres isn’t enough, especially downwind, but maybe that’s just me. People should wash their hands reasonably if they’ve been out, or before eating or preparing food, anyway, because there are plenty of viruses doing the rounds normally. It’s surprising how many don’t, or who give their hands only a cursory rinse. I can think of people who don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet. (Ewwwwww). The messaging about Covid-19 reinforces the point. I expect that following the advice of health authorities, reliably and to the letter, will be necessary until a vaccine has been produced in quantity. That’ll take at least a year, maybe 18 months.

General virus transmission mechanisms are so well known that it’s been surprising to me that so much woo woo has emerged about how to avoid or cure it. And there’s more. According to my social media feeds, for instance, Covid-19 is apparently a billionaire plot for nefarious purpose (just what purpose isn’t defined); it’s reputedly a fraud designed to give government total control; it’s just fake news; or the lock-down reaction is unnecessary because according to Scientist X or Y, the virus is apparently not serious. Well, quite. On top of this has been the way social media has collectively seized upon one slight hint or another of drug treatment or a cure, often merely on the hint that a clinical trial might be conducted, or on preliminary results from a first trial.

What does this say about humans, collectively? There is are fairly clear messages, I think, about human nature – as expressed in society – through all of this. One is that there is a deep element of fear running through society, which is expressed in many ways anyhow, but which a pandemic has particularly focused. Another is that, by contrast with the neo-liberal concept of a society driven by ‘rational’ decision-makers, actually people are not rational at all; decisions are made at an emotional level and the rationality is a post-fact add on. Further, at collective level, society makes repeated and irrational lurches in one direction or another – ‘social panics’. There are many I can point to in history, big and small: witch-hunting, Robespierre’s ‘terror’, McCarthyism and, of course, the toilet-paper frenzy that followed the arrival of Covid-19.

The main message I get from all of this – which I think has a LOT of historical precedent – is that a scared society is likely to be its own worst enemy.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

13 thoughts on “Social media and Covid-19 – what it tells us about human nature

    1. So true, Chris. An added ingredient may be that so many have lost their respect for and belief in science. If you believe scientific facts are rubbery, plausible sounding scams are that much easier to swallow. 😦

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      1. It worries me that science has been so discredited of late. I suspect social media, with its ‘village gossip’ content, has a good deal to do with that. One of the causes, I think, is that we seem to be conditioned – popularly and generally – to suppose that reality can be defined by empirical and immutable ‘fact’. Whereas science, as you say, is a bit ‘rubbery’ as a result of scientific method, in which the hypothesis is modified on the basis of new data. This doesn’t mean it disregards the facts, of course – on the contrary, the hypothesis is wholly based on them. However, the data-set is never complete. The study of history works much the same way and I’ve found it incredibly difficult to get that understanding out there.


        1. I think it’s all down to a lack of knowledge. Unless you’ve had some exposure to the scientific method, it’s hard to reconcile the insistence on fact with the necessity to constantly reassess those facts. Ditto history. It’s almost a contradiction – how can something be just so and yet not so?

          As an ex-teacher, I blame education theory. Kids are still not taught to think and /question/.

          To digress slightly, my Dad was an engineer and a brilliant mathematician, but he said he never learned formulae. Why not? Because he believed it was better to know why the formula worked than to simply apply it by rote. He was an out-of-the-box thinker, but I truly believe he was right. Of course, there is a whole skill set involved in asking the right questions.

          lol – I’ll stop ranting now. 🙂

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    2. Too true. And it hasn’t taken long for the Covid-19 scammers to appear either – my Facebook feed, even, includes paid advertising for a Covid-19 home testing kit promising results in 15 minutes. A cash-on-anxiety ripoff if ever I saw one. I despair, sometimes, at human nature.

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  1. ‘decisions are made at an emotional level and the rationality is a post-fact add on’. Yes! Accept that one thing, and everything else falls in place. Here in Australia, our Scotty made pronouncements about what people should do and expected them to go ahead and do. And then he was surprised and annoyed when they didn’t. The man has no empathy at the best of times, but he really misjudged the Australian population. Those of us who understood the danger were way ahead of him. Those who didn’t, or who believed the initial messaging about ‘most people won’t be in danger’, ignored him completely.

    Expecting humans to be adult, rational, thinking beings is a recipe for disaster. When we’re scared, we turn into gullible toddlers. :/

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    1. I think the emotion-before-reason issue has been a major human failing through history. Because we always imagine otherwise it’s also, as you say, a pretty good explanation for why societies never do what they are predicted to. It’s certainly been a core failing of neo-liberal economic theory, which presupposes that humans are rational operators (it’s usually reduced to a single ideal individual, mathematically). Economists I know these days have all said to me that nobody quite believes the premise today and that analysis is based on a much broader range of potential behaviours. Still, there certainly was a time – I’m thinking 1980s and 1990s – when the assumption of the ‘rational operator’ was axiomatic and unquestioned. It was, of course, precisely backwards when dealing with en-masse social reaction.

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      1. This ‘failure of reason’ is also very evident in the thinking of Karl Marx. He based his assumptions on the idea that human beings are fundamentally altruistic. Capitalism, of course, posits a fundamental self-interest. In reality, neither is right. I wonder why we are so drawn to extremes; this or that, good or bad, altruistic or self-centred. What the hell is wrong with a dose of reality? -sigh-

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        1. I have a theory, built up over the historical work I’ve done, that human social attitudes run in cycles, shifting perceptibly typically every second or third generation; and the first step of change is usually to simply reverse what people feel ‘wrong’ about the current cycle. I think this is where Marx came adrift: a lot of what he believed – indeed, his framework of analysis – was not merely founded in nineteenth century progressivism (as in a quest for the iron-clad ‘law’ by which society was meant to operate) but also very much by the extreme liberal economics of his day. This was the age when unbridled, unregulated capitalism had succeeded in transferring so much wealth from the poor to the new-rich that the poor were rising up. Marx took it and ran with it, reversing everything ( notably the property held by the one-percenters: reverse it and property is communal) little realising that (a) he hadn’t broken clear of the parameters of thinking of his time; and (b) a simple reversal of one extreme was always going to lead to its opposite. And, of course, communism didn’t work because ultimately it ran against the precepts of human nature. There has to be balance in thinking; and neither Marx, Hegel, Feuerbach or the others in the mix at the time actually found it.

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          1. Thank you! I’ve only dabbled at the very edges of history so I’m thrilled to have my observations validated. More importantly, you’ve explained why. I just assumed Marx and the others of his era were simply poor judges of humanity.
            Of course, the parallels to our own time are rather disturbing. As an individual, I want to see us fix the inequalities of the current system while keeping the best it has to offer. Fingers crossed.

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  2. Thanks for a well reasoned piece and I definitely despair for the human race and it seems to have become a race to the bottom. If evolution is still driving us I believe we may be overcome by the herd instinct of fear before reason wins out.

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  3. Interesting read. My thoughts are that a scared society should educate themselves – and ignore social media just like you said. I’ve seen to many fake news and recirculated photos from years past that I’m surprised my eyes haven’t rolled out of my head. I feel like if these people educated themselves more and posted about their anxiety less, this hysteria would come to an end a lot sooner.

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