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A magic moment for social media?

Marco Müller
April 19, 2020

Social distancing is mandatory these days, and those looking to connect with others during the COVID-19 pandemic are turning to social media sites. Have they suddenly become a force for good?

A man wearing a face mask as a preventive measure against the coronavirus views his mobile phone in central London
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/ZUMAPRESS/SOPA/S. Taylor

Empty, silent, boring — the world's cities are deserted. The coronavirus pandemic has brought public life to a standstill: spring break has been canceled, birthdays and concerts, too. Restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs have all been shut for the duration.

Read more: Virtual concert by artists worldwide: 'One World: Together at Home'

Obliged to stay inside, people are instead keeping busy at home. And thanks to social media, much of that activity is being shared with others. Suddenly, living rooms have been transformed into TV studios or sports arenas — allowing people to have fun and keep each other company virtually.

More than just creative?

These home activities are often linked to hashtags, like #stayathomechallenge or #toiletpaperchallenge.

They feature people — including world-famous soccer players like Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery and Jerome Boateng — doing things like showcasing their ability to mesmerize with toilet paper dribbling skills.

Others don't require things like athletic ability or toilet paper, that most valuable of commodities. In the #pillowchallenge, participants fashion an outfit by cinching a pillow to their waist with a belt, take a picture and share it online.

Even Hollywood actress Halle Berry got in on the action with this classy look.

Screenshot Instagram Halle Berry
Image: instagram.com/halleberry

The #gettymuseumchallenge requires decidedly more creative energy and motivation. The famed Los Angeles institution took to Twitter in late March to challenge people to recreate famous artworks using household items.

What's the point?

These campaigns "inspire people to get creative, to get active and get them to do something different," said Tobias Dienlin, a media psychology researcher at the University of Hohenheim in southern Germany, adding that they "let people bring a ray of sunshine into their lives." He told DW that such activities provide a temporary respite from the doldrums of the depressing and sometimes stressful situation of being trapped inside.

Other challenges, however, have more educational aims, though they haven't necessarily been packaged that way. Some photos and videos, for example, have been produced with the intention of getting people to wear face masks or wash their hands properly. And if a video of dancers making hand movements suggesting good hygiene can make people laugh at the same time, all the better.

There are also a number of other campaigns that seek to offer real world support, such as those helping to get food to senior citizens, a high-risk group during the pandemic.

Have social media sites like Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, which often make negative headlines for promoting hate speech and fake news, suddenly become a force for good?

Read more: Opera stars come out of isolation

Jan-Hinrik Schmidt, an expert in digital interactive media and political communication at the Leibniz-Institute for Media Research, doesn't think so. He says social media sites are no different from the time before the pandemic; the only thing that's changed is the way media outlets are reporting on them.

"We usually focus on aspects of social media that don't work well, and rightly so," he said, mentioning the issues of hate speech and trolls. "Now we see that this side of the sites is not necessarily the norm."

Schmidt said most people use social media sites "to engage in peaceful and constructive exchanges with those around them, and to do good," and that's now being reflected in the media coverage, pointing out that social media sites aren't inherently good or evil.

Media psychologist Tobias Dienlin agreed, saying social media sites are a "mirror of humanity — with both its positive and negative sides."

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