The historic sweep of COVID-19 across Asia, Europe, and now the United States has simultaneously gone “viral” digitally and across social media, effectively becoming the biggest news story on the planet overnight. 

As is the case with any major developing news story, social media users quickly took to their platforms of choice to not only stay informed but also to share opinions and experiences related to the virus with their audiences. If the growing pandemic can be seen as one repercussion of globalization’s ubiquitousness, then the reaction online can and should be seen as a manifestation of Big Tech’s ubiquitousness in the digital era. 

Itis imperative in this time of crisis that social media is truly a platform for the people, serving the best interests of users who may have no other way to connect with each other and the rest of the world. While Big Tech tyrants have drawn ire in the past for banning users who do not conform to executives’ standards, it is critical that social media platforms serve as a platform for all in these trying times. 

Politicians, policymakers, journalists, and other public-facing leaders use the major tech platforms not only to find out about breaking news, but also as their chief distribution tools to disseminate official information, statements, and press materials to constituents and stakeholders. 

So-called social media and tech firms including Parler are at the forefront of facilitating this crucial transmission of information: history will look back on our role at this time as even more important than that of news and media outlets responsible for reporting fairly on the pandemic. Social media is about to serve as the chief record and digital footprint for this novel moment.

With “social distancing” and quarantine measures being put into place intercontinentally to contain the further spread of the virus, so-called social media is about to take on even greater importance: serving its primary function of connecting friends and family who may be isolated from one another, either miles or continents apart. 

In mainland China, for instance, Hubei province — a region roughly the size of the entire country of France — was under a hard quarantine for weeks on end over the Lunar New Year. At one point in time, Chinese authorities had nearly 700 million people — one-tenth of the global population — under some form of quarantine. This was the first time in human history that a quarantine of such proportions had been attempted.

The Chinese Communist Party, widely regarded as one of the world’s most opaque, repressive, and deceptive regimes in history, has long and notoriously upheld a digital firewall that prevents the free transmission of into and out of the country. Policymakers in the US have repeatedly pushed for the wall to come down, so far to no avail.

Now, as the virus has made its way into Europe, the entire nation of Italy finds itself under quarantine after a weeks-long quarantine of the Lombardy region. Still, the number of cases reported continues to balloon, and no end to the quarantine is insight. 

In the United States, travel restrictions have been in place for weeks, with more likely to come as the virus makes its way across the landmass. 

As we have already seen with leading universities including Yale and Harvard asking that students not return from Spring Break, and major corporations such as Walmart and Amazon mandating remote work, there is a very real possibility that, for the first time in American history, citizens will be homebound for extensive periods of time.

During this period, citizens will be turning to social media not only for news, but also for comfort, solidarity, and connectivity. Big Tech firms should be looking for innovative new ways to streamline remote work for companies, while also providing users with a human experience they may otherwise have to go without. 

Elise Rhodes
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