With over 25 million COVID-19 cases and the highest daily death toll in the world, Indians are battling for every last oxygen concentrator, ICU bed, and funeral pyre for their loved ones. While countries such as the United States and United Kingdom are slowly vaccinating themselves back to normality, India is one of many countries in the Global South currently struggling under the weight of soaring COVID-19 cases. For Indians, this means that the word “doomscrolling” has taken on a horrifying new meaning: social media feeds are filled with chilling images of abandoned human bodies and overburdened crematoriums.
However, these social media feeds have also become a lifeline for many Indians searching for ways to save their loved ones. The collapse of India’s public health system has spurred countless citizens to engage in collective action, and social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook are the vehicles through which they have done so.
These platforms, often derided for dividing us, are allowing an army of volunteers to deliver timely information and life-saving resources to those who need it most. Indians are using social media to find resources like oxygen cylinders, ambulances, antiviral medicines, hospital beds, blood plasma, food, and cremation sites. WhatsApp users, for example, are crowdsourcing “verified” resources, like those mentioned above, using alumni and company chat groups. They’re also creating innovative digital products, like a new AI-enabled bot that finds validated resources in most major cities in India in real-time. Facebook has partnered with the government and launched a Vaccine Finder app to find vaccine centers, while Twitter has launched a “Search for COVID” feature helping Indians find urgent supplies.
Social media platforms, often derided for dividing us, are allowing an army of volunteers to deliver timely information and life-saving resources to those who need it most.
This aid, enabled by digital media, is often the difference between life and death for thousands afflicted by the virus. And Indians are doing so for family members and strangers alike. In a very real way, they have used social media platforms to build an informal virtual health care network that is matching demand with limited supply.
One of our friends panicked when his father’s condition started to deteriorate in his faraway hometown in northern India. From his current home in Mumbai, he used four different social media channels to secure resources, including oxygen cylinders via WhatsApp and Facebook groups, and Instagram helped him secure an ICU slot; and a Twitter SOS appeal helped him find a critical medicine that was locally unavailable. His father survived and was just released from hospital. It is just one example of how social media’s hyperconnectivity is allowing Indians to democratize access to resources in a context where they are fighting a huge gap in health care delivery.
As a research team who studies the impact of social media on behavior and mental health, we have been struck by this development. Our work had recently started focusing on understanding social media and other digital technologies in both the Global North and the Global South, and we found ourselves wondering what we might learn from the rise of India’s digital Samaritans about how social media might be a force for good.
The prevailing public and media narrative about social media has often focused on the negatives. Likewise, most research into the impact of social media platforms focuses on their potential risks: whether there is a potential link between social media use and mental health, addiction, depression, anxiety, suicide, substance use disorders, violence, political polarization, moral outrage, and misinformation.
Some of our research has been part of a growing body of evidence that debunked some strong original claims that social media is driving large increases in mental health disorders, especially in countries in the Global North such as the United States. Such studies, which had effectively spurred public concern about social media’s consequences, were often correlational, exploratory, and based on inaccurate self-report measures. But they were finding very small, albeit statistically significant, effect sizes. It is now increasingly understood that social media subtly and intricately relates with mental health and well-being, in ways and quantities that are very different from one individual user to the next. Yet most of our, and others’, research still focuses on accurately quantifying social media’s potential for harm, rather than its potential for good.
What we do know is that social media allows people to connect in ways that were previously impossible, and, in doing so, the platforms can enable states of hyperconnectivity.
What we do know is that social media allows people to connect in ways that were previously impossible, and, in doing so, the platforms can enable states of hyperconnectivity. These states are used for both positive and negative ends, and it’s rarely just positive or negative.
Consider the complexity of social media’s impact in India. Like in the United States and United Kingdom, this hyperconnectivity can drive misinformation, polarization, and extremism. The widespread fake news, from the tongue-in-cheek-titled “WhatsApp University,” further disadvantages the most vulnerable users. During the COVID-19 crisis, some desperate families have been misled, scammed, and manipulated; there is now a black market for oxygen cylinders with a 1,000 percent markup.
Further, in places like the United States and Europe, social media companies have often been accused of amplifying liberal voices and marginalizing the perspectives of those on the right. Surprisingly, in the East, these same tech giants have been accused of the exact opposite. In the case of India, Twitter and Facebook have been criticized for censoring posts and promoting propaganda by India’s right leaning government. In one case, the local government opened a criminal case against a man who put out an SOS for oxygen for his grandfather, because the government said that he was spreading false information about the availability of medical supplies.
Yet as we described earlier, the situation has also demonstrated how such hyperconnectivity can be a catalyst for prosocial behavior with life-saving benefits, particularly during a crisis when ultra-fast communication and coordination is required.
So how can we—social media users, behavioral scientists, technology companies, policymakers—work together to harness the power of social media for good, especially during humanitarian crises?
So how can we—social media users, behavioral scientists, technology companies, policymakers—work together to harness the power of social media for good, especially during humanitarian crises? We believe that to do so, we all need to embrace the complexity of social media’s impact on our lives, moving beyond the predominant fixation on harms that need to be quantified and alleviated. Such a move would not be about blind techno-optimism, but about establishing a clear understanding of the role social media plays in our lives.
As scientists, we can take a step in this direction by broadening the questions we ask about social media; how it helps and hinders society and, most importantly, in what contexts?
Indeed, previous research has examined social media through a mostly Western lens, missing out on insights from how it is used in other parts of the world. Currently, smartphone adoption is growing faster than ever before, and its projected penetration will soon cover a critical mass of users in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, far outstripping the number of users in the Global North. As the world becomes digitally connected, there is a promising avenue for researchers to expand their focus from the Global North to the Global South. More nuanced and inclusive research, on more diverse populations, will be critical if we want to develop a more holistic understanding of social media and its impact on the next billion users.
One must also note that while social media has proven to be an effective enabler in times of crisis, it cannot be a substitute for an inclusive public health system in India, or elsewhere. COVID-19 is now ravaging rural villages, with dead bodies washing up on the shores of India’s rivers. Only a fraction of Indians (about 30 percent) have access to smartphones, and the majority (65 percent) live in rural areas. Yet in India, 18–45 year-olds are only allowed to sign up for vaccinations online. The stark digital divide therefore precludes the poor and marginalized citizens from seeking help. Underserved populations are left without equal access to vaccines, let alone timely information and medical support. Therefore, the pandemic also serves as an urgent reminder to bridge the digital divide and highlights the need for not just digital access but true digital inclusion.