UBC journalism prof Alfred Hermida gives Canadians high marks for social-media response to novel coronavirus

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      In 2014, Alfred Hermida literally wrote the book on social media.

      The former BBC journalist's Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters won the National Business Book Award.

      For the most part, Hermida, director of the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, has been impressed by how Canadians have responded to COVID-19 over Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, and other platforms.

      He hasn't conducted extensive research, but from an anecdotal perspective, he feels that people are coming together over social media to help one another through a time of crisis.

      In his view, there's almost a sense that the public has learned from the past, when social media wasn't always used to achieve positive effects.

      "Given the severity of something like this, where we really are talking about life and death, we have a responsibility to use this amazing tool responsibly," Hermida told the Straight by phone. "And again, that might be happening more in Canada than elsewhere."

      He said that the approach by provincial health authorities in B.C. and the provincial public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has been calm and measured, setting an example for everybody.

      "Perhaps that sets the tone for the behaviour of social media," Hermida added.

      He contrasted that with what's happened in the United States. At times, there's been an absence of leadership and an absence of information south of the border.

      "Perhaps what one might say is a lack of leadership coming from the White House there in the handling of the coronavirus then would give space on social media for people to speculate and for worse fears and concerns to be aired," he said.

      Hermida has access to various social-media tools, giving him the capacity to measure positive and negative sentiment. He readily acknowledged that most messages relating to the novel coronavirus have skewed toward a negative sentiment.

      But he didn't think that was necessarily a bad thing, given the gravity of the situation. As of this writing, there have been 188,555 positive test results for COVID-19 and 7,510 deaths worldwide.

      "There are signs of a more mature use of social [media]," Hermida said. "Of course, there's still going to be rumours. There's still going to be speculation. There's still going to be desperation, and there are going to be bad actors. That's taken as a given."

      In addition, Hermida noted that academics are sharing information on best practices as they've been forced to move their classes online in response to COVID-19. Many are using the hashtag #academicchatter, offering to share resources.

      He also pointed out that people came together over social media following the death of former NBA star Kobe Bryant.

      In early February, Hermida researched which messages were being shared the most regarding the novel coronavirus. He found that they generally concerned how to stay safe, how to properly wash one's hands, and other precautionary advice.

      The most influential accounts were experts and reputable sources, like the World Health Organization, its director general Dr. Tedros Ahanom Ghebreyesus, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

      Hermida noted that as of March 15, the #coronavirus hashtag has been used 37,621,455 times on Twitter.