Spoiler Alert: The answer is a resounding “yes”, but first some disclaimers and a story.
Disclaimer 1. I have no idea what the real facts to this story are, and what will ultimately be shared with the public. But neither does anyone else, and that’s the point of the story.
Disclaimer 2. This is not a story about anti-vaxxers.
Disclaimer 3. This story is not about the people mentioned, they are simply examples to highlight what social media is becoming.
On February 6th, 2020 a reporter from NBC News (Brandy Zadrozny) broke a story. The headline read “On Facebook, anti-vaxxers urged a mom not to give her son Tamiflu. He later died.” and twitter lit up. Note: I’m not going to share this story as I do not want to promote it nor the hatred that is being spread. At time of writing there were over 30,000 retweets, over 51,000 Likes and hundreds of comments on her post, targeting anti-vaxxers and the parents with vile comments.
The story was widely shared with the retweeters adding their own commentary.
Dan Rather: “Dear Facebook, You need to fix this kind of thing. Now.”
Timothy Caulfield: “Sad & infuriating. … Legitimizing bunk. Pushing "natural" cures. Fearmongering. The spread of misinformation can have significant consequences.”
Dr. Jen Gunter: “But there is no harm in alternative medicine you say...” (over 200 retweets, over 1000 likes)
The vile comments targeting anti-vaxxers and the parents continued.
Later another story came out from CBS Denver with the headline “Flu Kills 4-Year-Old Colorado Boy, Mother Says ‘We Feel Like We Failed’” and the mother saying:
“I’m hurting so bad right now and so is his dad and his brothers. Our whole family is hurting. And it’s like we feel like we failed because we did what we had to do. We called the doctors. We called the hospital. We gave them the medicine we were instructed to give. We did everything,”
This morning another story came out from Fox8 News, with the headline “Father of 4-year-old who died from flu responds to ‘anti-vaxxer’ criticism”
I’m sure there’s going to be much more to this story before all is said and done.
In a similar story many years ago a toddler died of meningitis, many have probably heard the Ezekiel Stephan story. The storyline was similar. A story broke with headlines and vile comments targeting the parents and a naturopath. Twitter pundits chimed in with their own additional comments to the story, further fueling the fire and raising outrage across social media. More facts came out. It wasn’t about the naturopath. The original story was a sensationalist piece, and it had glaring inaccuracies. But the damage was done. Did the original commenters get “the rest of the story”? Did they come back and apologize to the naturopath for their vile attacks? Naturopathy was further vilified.
These stories really get me outraged. I have no qualms whatsoever with calling out the story and raising concerns about anti-vaxxers, naturopaths, Integrative Medicine, Conventional Medicine, or anything else. But let’s stick to the facts. There are people involved in these stories. They are community members. The “outrage mining” that exists on social media is creating an epidemic of taking sides, grabbing weapons of choice (on social media it’s vile words and targeted attacks) and heading into an all out war. Take no prisoners. People are harmed emotionally, and in some cases financially. Even if they’ve done nothing wrong.
Is this what we’ve become? Is this what health is all about? Is this what community is all about? Throwing flammables on already existing fires is sure to create even bigger fires. We owe it to ourselves and to others to deal with each other responsibly. To deal with stories like this responsibly. Should we be calling out nonsense? Absolutely. But first, let’s make sure we know the story.
Back to the question in the headline. Can Social Media be Used for Good? It’s a resounding yes. And there’s no time like the present to start. The first step is to stop using it for inciting divisiveness.