Twitter During a Pandemic

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Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Twitter served as an outlet for opinions about anything and everything. It is essentially a boundless platform, with an average of 500 million tweets sent per day, one can imagine how information and opinions on any topic, no matter how niche, can be found on Twitter. Although this aspect of the platform remains unchanged, a new side of Twitter has emerged and grown dramatically during the pandemic. Twitter has always existed as a politicized platform, with both politicians and citizens using the platform to express their opinions regarding certain policies, as well as to comment on domestic or international events. As Covid-19 progressed and eventually became a pandemic, there was an unsurprising yet notable rise in Covid-19-related tweets from politicians and others. Governors would post statistics from their respective states about new cases, new deaths, and other important policy changes. As the pandemic became more and more politically divisive, these Governors, as well as Congresspersons, Senators, and even President Trump began taking advantage of Twitter’s growing reputation as a social media epicenter for the pandemic. Twitter, like many other social media platforms, is shaped by its users rather than its creators. Thus, Twitter is not just home to articles and statistics about the pandemic. It has grown into an endless vacuum of outrage, political attacks, and enormous misinformation campaigns. 

I am an active Twitter user. I used Twitter before the pandemic and still use it every single day. However, the way I use Twitter in the wake of the pandemic has undeniably changed. During the height of the pandemic in my home state of New Jersey, I would log on to Twitter at around noon everyday to check Governor Phil Murphy’s account. There, I would find his Covid-19 updates, relating to cases, deaths, and hopeful plans for reopening businesses and other services. The simplicity of Twitter gave both myself and the public easy, quick access to updates about the pandemic. Checking individual accounts was not the only way to access news about the pandemic, however. In addition to Twitter’s “Trending” page, where one could often find massive online movements dedicated to tearing down Dr. Fauci or shaming others for refusing to wear masks, Twitter added an entire tab dedicated to pandemic-related news from legitimate, reputable sources. This centralization of pandemic updates was a smart yet necessary step. Without it, users would be forced to wander at their own risk through opinions that read as fact, theories that read as objective scientific evidence, and simply put, lies. By choosing what articles are deserving of a spot on their Covid-19 page, Twitter has effectively created a safe-haven for those seeking to learn about the progression of the pandemic. However, not many users come to Twitter seeking refuge from false information.

In the midst of the pandemic, I see Twitter as having two distinct sides. As I discussed, there is a side filled with factual articles, statistics, and informed statements regarding the pandemic. The other side, however, is one of emotion. In this time of anxiety, anger, and uncertainty, the public has turned to Twitter to release these pent up emotions. Direct attacks and threats towards politicians, by both the general public and other politicians, have become commonplace. The pandemic rapidly became politicized on Twitter, and then it inevitably became weaponized. A vast majority of tweets are filled with immense frustration, and this has become a defining factor of Twitter’s current state. That is not to say that this side of Twitter is definitively a negative one. Since its creation, Twitter has served as a way for people to state their opinion in a 280-character paragraph. The difference is that now more than ever, people are using Twitter to push their opinions and beliefs as fact. This leads to a major issue because it becomes impossible to determine who truly knows what they are talking about and who is trying to elicit anger from someone with a differing perspective. 

Twitter represents itself as a platform where people from anywhere around the world gather and talk about literally anything. “See what people are talking about” and “See what’s happening” are common taglines associated with Twitter, and their “About” page opens with “Twitter is what’s happening in the world and what people are talking about right now.” These quotes are idealizations. They are what Twitter wants to be. In many ways, Twitter is what people are talking about. The issue, specifically during the pandemic, is that a vast amount of Twitter users are no longer using the app to inform, update, or comment on current events. It has become a battleground of misinformation from all sides of the political spectrum. Science clashes with politics and religion, videos are doctored and spread without any regard for context, and even legitimate news sources, no matter how accurate and informed, are met with a barrage of attacks denouncing their integrity. Twitter has begun implementing fact-checking features, such as flagging tweets for misinformation, but these features are scarcely found and otherwise ignored.  Twitter has always been home to conflict, as the clashing of opinions is not at all a new phenomenon. However, the pandemic opened the floodgates to opinions that actively put others in harm’s way. For example, one could see tweets claiming that nobody should get tested for Covid-19 or wear a mask in public and believe them to be true. After all, many of these tweets have come from public officials, politicians, and other “authority figures” in American society. Therefore, this person could contract and unknowingly spread Covid-19 to vulnerable populations because he has been misinformed about the disease. Although Twitter as a whole is a revolutionary platform that allows people around the world to share their interests and opinions in short blurbs of text, and for others to gain insight into current events, the pandemic has shown that Twitter is now facing an unsolvable dilemma: censor tweets that may have been intentionally spreading misinformation, or allow complete and total freedom of speech to persist. Both choices will spark massive backlash for Twitter, but the drastic increase in partisan polarization in America is being reflected on Twitter, clearly representing that it is time for a change.

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