The COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant changes around the world and in all areas of human activity. The need for quarantine in most states has led to a decline in demand for entertainment and tourism, which has brought significant damage to businesses and job losses for millions of people. At the same time, the health care system in most countries was not ready for the pandemic, which made it difficult to treat patients and led to the rapid spread of diseases. However, some business areas suffered significantly fewer losses or even gained some benefit from the increased demand for their services. Among them are social media, which has received increased demand both because of the desire of people to get entertainment while staying at home and because of the need to provide the most relevant information.
However, the role of the media during the pandemic is still controversial among the public and academics. On the one hand, the media have become the primary source of fake information and have led to an increase in racial stereotypes, bias, and hatred of people of Asian descent (Anwar et al., 2020). Some unscrupulous media and bloggers have also spread false information about coronavirus treatment and prevention options or the dangers of vaccination (Anwar et al., 2020). On the other hand, the media has become a convenient tool for global health organizations, helping to spread awareness of preventive measures and partially slow down the pandemic. In addition, they promoted hygiene and social distancing practices and offered the most recent data on the number of cases of infection and the development of a vaccine (Anwar et al., 2020). For this reason, this paper will look at the major changes in media during a pandemic, ways of their adaptation, and transformation to examine their role in a social context.
Digitalization of the Society and Its Influence on Media
The first change that the coronavirus pandemic brought was the rapid digitalization of almost all spheres of society. Restrictions on the operation of most public institutions, including schools and office centers, have resulted in people being pushed to use online services for most of their routine activities. This change had a particularly significant impact on the business as most companies were forced to change their marketing and business strategies urgently. As a result, social media has become a central tool for businesses, partly influencing its role and audience use.
For example, Facebook used targeting advertising before the pandemic and was a popular service for posting news and personal opinions. However, Facebook’s daily traffic increased by 27% during the pandemic, and corporate social media investments have increased by 24% since February 2020 (Koeze & Popper, 2020; Moorman & McCarthy, 2021). In fact, Facebook became a central place for socialization as it performed several functions simultaneously. First, Facebook was a platform for business and served as an intermediary between companies and buyers because it provided opportunities for advertising, publications, comments, and other forms of interaction. Second, Facebook has been used to exchange and disseminate information and opinions, both through private messages and through communities. Third, Facebook was one of the main news sources that the audience demanded in the first months of the pandemic.
The main problem and advantage of social media are that everyone can express their opinion. Some of the media is useful to society and unites communities around the problem; for example, it can be used to raise funds for people who are left without work or support local restaurants. The other part of media was used to spread false information and manipulation. As noted by Lindgren (2017), society forms the media environment, but at the same time, the media forms the society. Consequently, the coexistence of the two media groups has made it difficult for traditional resources such as news agencies and newspapers to adapt to the increased information flow, limitation of traditional journalism methods, and lack of experience in covering crisis events of this magnitude.
Traditional media have been forced to move to remote work, as have hundreds of other industries. The first challenge was that most journalists and newsrooms had to work under the stress of new working conditions and increased demand for news and track and disprove information from unreliable sources (Perreault & Perreault, 2021). In addition, journalists could not conduct live interviews, which led to the widespread use of video communications and the adaptation of the news format (Perreault & Perreault, 2021). Basically, the media used e-mediation form because they transferred information about coronavirus from governments and health organizations to the public and conveyed socially important issues caused by pandemics to governments using e-sources. Thus, journalists were pushed to use new formats and approaches to receive and disseminate information, as well as to assess facts more critically to provide relevant data and be accountable to readers.
Moreover, journalists must adapt and choose their storytelling style to make the news factual but not lead the population to panic and polarization. For example, in the first months of the pandemic, the fact that the coronavirus originated in China and spreads in Asian countries caused xenophobia (Anwar et al., 2020). In addition, different editorial policies have led to a polarization of public opinion. For instance, Mihelj et al. (2021) note that those who watched Fox News were more likely to believe that governments exaggerated the risks of a pandemic and did not follow the rules of distancing and hygiene. Thus, traditional media needed to develop an optimal approach to delivering vital information to the audience not to cause social conflicts and to convey the real risks of a pandemic.
The second role of Facebook, that is, providing opportunities for communication and exchange of information, clearly reflects the ideas of Durheim and McLuhan about the social. From McLuhan’s perspective, the use of social networks is an extension of ourselves, and from Durkheim’s point of view, this process can be seen as “extending into the realm of the social” (Lindgren, 2017, p. 54). However, in the event of a pandemic, for several months, social networks became not “extending” for most people but the only way to socialize. Since people could not receive live communication, they resorted to online means, which also created new types of media.
New Types of Media
The pandemic and lockdown also created new social media or, rather, changed the meaning of existing media in the social life of the population. As Lindgren (2017) notes, in a broad sense, any medium that is used for socialization purposes can be referred to as social media. However, in this case, it is necessary to discuss the role of those tools that have been used in the digital environment over the years but were not perceived as social media. These tools are video communication services such as Skype or Zoom, which were in high demand during the lockdown period.
In 2020, video communication programs for group communication gained significant popularity as they were used for both personal communication and work meetings and classes in schools and colleges. Already in April 2020, 30 percent of US residents noted that they began to use video calls more often (Nguyen et al., 2020). This fact demonstrates that Skype and Zoom have become social media in the broadest sense that Lindgren defines (2017). Video communication services have also strengthened their role as a means of education and telemedicine. In the midst of the pandemic, most people used online consultations with medical professionals to avoid hospital visits. As Anwar et al. (2020) noted, during the pandemic, telemedicine became the mainstay of clinical practice and also provided people with psychological help related to stress due to fear of coronavirus or loneliness during quarantine. At the same time, students used video calling for classes in schools and universities, as well as doing homework with peers. Thus, in addition to the direct function of education or receiving medical advice, video communication services were also used for socialization, which, in a broad sense, made them social media.
Moreover, if one considers that companies and communities have also used these programs for events, and bloggers for online broadcasts, then one can say that they have also become social media in a narrow sense. For example, Lindgren cites (2017). Gauntlett’s definition of social media, which defined its traits through the example of YouTube. Gauntlett determines that social media are the framework for participation, content-agnostic, and community features (Lindgren, 2017). These traits are also reflected in the work of video communications services as they brought together communities of people interested in different topics, for example, the presentation of a book of fiction, but did not limit the variety of content and were aimed at the interaction of participants.
Before the pandemic, such platforms were rarely used for such purposes since most meetings and events were available offline. The pandemic did not create Skype or Zoom as a means of communication but changed their social meaning. Thus, this example demonstrates that COVID-19 has opened up the potential of a new social network that can be used even after all quarantine restrictions have been lifted.
Social media such as Facebook and TikTok have further shifted the role of producer and consumer of content, which was traditional before the internet. As Ito notes, participants in modern social media “are actively (re-) making and (re-) distributing content in emerging systems of many-to-many communication and interaction” (Lindgren, 2017, p. 66). One can easily find examples of this statement on TikTok or Facebook, where any user can create an informative post, photo, or video on any topic. During the outbreak and after the pandemic, the popularity of these resources increased significantly; for example, TikTok is one of the most popular media today (Koeze & Popper, 2020). At the same time, these systems coexist with traditional media such as film, music, or news and are often used to recreate content. For example, bloggers can make a news compilation or create a video with hygiene rules for the prevention of COVID-19 in an entertaining video format.
In addition, many people began to create their video content, not only for entertainment, such as short videos on TikTok, but also for educational purposes. Companies that offered courses in drawing, writing, marketing, or even fitness training went online to keep their profit and retain customers. Schools and teachers also recorded lectures or provided study materials online. Thus, the role of society as a consumer of content has shifted even more during the pandemic, and although some of these resources, for example, fitness classes, return back to the offline space, the media have already changed their approaches and the ratio of the consumer’s audience to the producer’s audience.
Thus, this analysis demonstrates that the coronavirus pandemic has brought significant changes and shifts to social media. First, the lockdown and the uncertainty caused by the unknown virus have increased the demand for information and traditional media work. These media also changed the format and approach of work due to the limitations and conditions of the global crisis. At the same time, they have retained their primary role of informing and shaping the environment, although the pandemic environment has also shaped new approaches to how traditional media work. This change happened due to both the limited availability of offline funds and the growth of the amount of false information that threatened the polarization of society. However, the biggest shift has been the transition of most industries to the Internet, which has also increased the importance of social media.
First, social media has become the main platform for businesses as quarantine restrictions have significantly reduced the use of offline marketing. Second, the majority of the population received and disseminated news through social media. Third, social media has become the main or often the only means of communication, learning, and work. These changes significantly increased the popularity of such platforms as Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok. This fact also led to the emergence or change in the role of services such as Skype or Zoom, which became full-fledged social media in which members of different interest groups interacted. In addition, the isolation and lack of offline events caused a stronger shift in roles from an audience as a consumer to an audience as a produces. Thousands of people began to create entertainment or educational content and strengthen their role as content creators, although they did not replace traditional media. Some of these changes are likely to return to a pre-pandemic state. However, the pandemic has opened up the possibility of using social media in a new perspective, and these key changes will take hold in society.
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