The power (and curse) of social media is again being debated during the Ebola crisis, especially after each new case in the US hits the front page.
When news hit that Dr. Craig Spencer, a New York physician, contracted Ebola while serving Doctors Without Borders in West Africa, social media either portrays him as a selfless humanitarian — or a reckless fool heedless of others’ health.
Pray for the New York doctor with Ebola. Pray for containment. Pray as hard for the thousands of poor and sick who suffer in West Africa.
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) October 24, 2014
The Ebola doctor who just flew to N.Y. from West Africa and went on the subway, bowling and dining is a very SELFISH man-should have known!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 24, 2014
Social media certainly is certainly a handy tool for those who want to spread fear.
…users [can] take to the same outlets to share half-truths and rumors, perpetuating a number of irrational fears about Ebola. Misinformation can spread much faster across the U.S. than the virus ever could.
To see how much faster the which kind of tweet travels, check out the relative reach of the two tweets above. Both were snagged off Twitter at about the same time. One after fifteen hours, the other after three.
Still, social media can also spread useful information that can calm fears.
Another leading doctor in Sierra Leone, Dr. Modupeh Cole from Freetown’s Connaught Hospital, has died of Ebola. His death is a stark reminder of the danger that doctors and nurses across West Africa are facing during this unprecedented outbreak.
Many heard about Cole’s passing through their radios, which are everywhere, and have long been the key source of news in Sierra Leone. A significant number, though, found out through social media, which is quickly overtaking the radio as the de facto source for news.
Social media has also been a unifying source of strength for many in Sierra Leone. There have been many support groups that formed online and some of the most popular groups on Whatsapp are now called “Kick Ebola out of Salone” (The term of endearment for their country) or “Ebola is Real!”
The CDC is also using social media to quickly spread good information about the virus and the outbreak in this country.
— CDC (@CDCgov) October 24, 2014
This image speaks to the imbalance implicit in much of the media response:
It appears that, like any tool, social media in and of itself is morally neutral. The moral agents–the ones who can make social media “good” or “bad”–are people.