Coronavirus Q&A Matthew Brashears

COVID-19 impact: Communicating through social networks

Sociology professor discusses the use of in-person and online social networks

As the coronavirus threatens health and upends daily life throughout the world, UofSC Today is turning to our faculty to help us make sense of it all. While no one can predict exactly what will happen in the coming weeks and months, our faculty can help us ask the right questions and put important context around emerging events.


Matthew Brashears is an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina. We asked him to discuss how the coronavirus might affect social networks, both in-person and online.

What is one main point you would want people to understand about spreading coronavirus information and misinformation through social networks?

The core take-home I’d like people to have is that mistakes are made in the transmission of information through networks. I may mishear something, or misstate when I pass it on, and this means that as things spread, they change. Moreover, while humans are pretty good at spotting and fixing errors, they also periodically make a mistake in that ‘fixing’ process that makes the error worse. Other work has shown that over time, errors tend to make messages stereotype-consistent, and thus can reinforce previous misconceptions.

The upshot is, if you want good information, look it up from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or a reputable source. Your associates are likely to be trying to give you good information, but their good intentions aren’t enough to prevent these errors from occurring. You want to get the best information directly from the experts.

What are some of the factors you think we should be concerned about in terms of using social media during the pandemic?

We would hope that in a time like this some subjects would be off limits even to scammers, but this is regrettably not true. Shysters will be trying to sell their ‘miracle’ cures; for example, televangelist Jim Bakker is currently being sued by the State of Missouri for falsely claiming one of his products can cure COVID-19. Likewise, foreign adversaries may be exploiting the situation to sow distrust among us. As such, we need to be especially skeptical of claims that seem too good to be true, or that are especially inflammatory. If you see something like this, look it up on (a fact-checking site), or even try to hunt down information on it from a reputable source, but don’t just take it as true uncritically. As we’re swinging into an election season, it’s especially important to watch for misuse of this crisis by candidates.

Are there some particularly good and bad examples of ways to use our social networks during this time?

Relying on them for information is a bad idea. At the same time, these provide many ways to continue interacting with others without a risk of infection. Check on your friends via instant messaging, emails, texting and video calls. We are all in this thing and, properly used, social media can help us all be in it together, even as we have to remain separate.

What do you see as a range of possible outcomes relating to our social networks, both online and in-person?

It’s difficult to say. We’re likely to see a rise in online contact and a drop in offline, but I don’t expect that to be durable. Most social network ties are formed, and maintained, via proximity; you become friends, or acquaintances, or lovers, with people you run into. What this pandemic is doing at present is shutting down many of the contexts that generate proximity. We might see a durable rise in relations with neighbors, but then again we might not. 


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