Reflecting back on the Ebola crisis of 2014, the response seemed disproportionate to the actualized effects of the virus, but one must wonder whether there was a true overreaction fueled by misinformation and panic on social media, or did social media rather serve as a platform for awareness to be raised to such a degree that the result was an averted epidemic? One of the greatest topics still being pondered is the extensive quarantines of returned Americans who had been in potential contact with the virus. “Throughout the months of fear and uncertainty, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended monitoring people entering the United States from Ebola-affected countries, not confining them, because research showed that people with Ebola are not contagious before they show symptoms,” yet rather than following these recommendations, many states decided to impose a 21 day full quarantine (the maximum incubation period of a virus). I believe this is mainly as a response to the fear of the public, both propagated by and expressed on social media. Almost 3,000 people in the U.S. were subjected to quarantine and none developed Ebola. Dr. Jay K. Varma, the deputy health commissioner in New York City, even admitted that, “we did have to factor in what the public appetite is for accepting risk in any given situation.”
Dr. Snyderman, a NBC journalist who had been in the same room as someone who developed Ebola was asked to track her health (temperature) and stay away from large gatherings; after being spotted exiting her car upon returning home with take-out food, Twitter and Facebook exploded, shaming her, “#NancySnyderman: the Typhoid Mary of #Ebola,” and even threatening her. Dr. Snyderman later commented that, “[She] realized during that crazy time maybe we haven’t moved the needle enough on the public’s trust of science.” I can’t agree more… the public’s outrage with the prescription of guidelines for monitoring the potentiality of the virus in an individual which were compliant with all available information and research was solely fueled by fear and absolutely no logic or viable scientific proof stood behind the public’s out-roar.
A former C.D.C. worker, with a master’s in public health believed the issue to be the government more so than that of medical individuals, “In the past, quarantine decisions have been made on carefully considered evidence, not flippant decisions by politicians… I think we really need to protect that.” The irony is that these political and emotional decisions may have actually increased the threat of the outbreak, as an informed medical person could have easily predicted without the shroud of terror. The director of the C.D.C, Dr. Frieden, made a statement that it was clear that people who were not yet sick could not spread Ebola, and that quarantines may paradoxically have put Americans at higher risk because they dissuaded medical volunteers from going to West Africa, where the outbreak was raging. He lamented that the aforementioned, “is the kind of long-term argument that doesn’t get a lot of traction with the public,” and was obviously aware of how the public opinion leeches power from logic and science.
It may appear exaggeratory to claim that social media wields such power, but simple statistics show the immense sway that it holds: after the first announced diagnosis of Ebola in the U.S., Twitter mentions of Ebola increased from 100/minute to 6,000/minute overnight. Though this may appear positive, as increasing awareness, despite the panic factor, the major issue with social media’s obsession with Ebola was the rapid dissemination of false claims.
In Iowa the Department of Public Health was forced to issue a statement dispelling social media rumors that Ebola had arrived in the state. Meanwhile there have been a constant stream of posts saying that Ebola can be spread through the air, water, or food, which are all inaccurate claims.
The solution is not clear as the monitoring and correction of this information would ultimately consist of censorship of free speech, an un-American proposition. I think the only solution, yet again, is awareness and for the people to be willing to not be ignorant. Willful ignorance is rampant nowadays and THAT is the true danger, not misinformation.