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Ebola panic encouraged by social media

Both ignorance and insensitivity abound on social media regarding the current Ebola outbreak. All over social media news feeds, you can see original and shared posts with ridiculous statements and references to Ebola. Some of these posts are meant to be humorous, some are intended to be serious, and others lay in an uncertain middle ground. Aside from posts shared from official health organizations and governmental agencies, it seems almost nothing on social media in regards to Ebola does anything to a.) Calm the growing panic of the fear of an Ebola outbreak in the United States or b.) Help raise awareness and a call to action to the very real and very devastating pandemic currently going on in West Africa. 

As expressed in the opinions section of this paper last week in the editorial “We Got 99 Problems, Ebola Ain’t One,” the chances of an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. are slim to none due to our country’s health care and disease prevention infrastructures. This is the general consensus of American professionals in health and medicine, with the Center for Disease Control calling the likelihood of an outbreak “very low” and Dr. John Howe, president and CEO of Project HOPE, calling it a “minute risk.” Why then, despite so many assurances, is the fear of Ebola spreading in the U.S. so prevalent? Again, last week’s Targum editorial assigned part of the blame on the media for hyping up these fears, which it certainly is doing. I believe mainly young people in their late teens and college years further perpetuate this atmosphere of fear on social media. 

“Not everything you hear is true, it could be in Jersey for all we know,” is just part of a long warning of a post that came up on my Instagram feed regarding Ebola. This language has a kind of conspiratorial tone, suggesting the U.S. and possibly state governments are hiding the fact an Ebola outbreak has reached New Jersey — despite the fact that the New Jersey State Health Department has done an adequate job in quarantining an NBC news crew that recently returned from Liberia. 

One need only search the term “Ebola” on Twitter to find more posts that stoke the flames of some sort of conspiracy theory that misinforms and distorts the views of many young social media users. “Proof that Ebola is airborne” and “I heard the Ebola vaccine only works on white people” are some examples. The first statement is plainly false, but to the impressionable this leads to the belief that breathing “contaminated air” can lead to contamination. While racial tensions already exist in this country, the second Tweet furthers that divide, suggesting the creators of the supposed vaccine (no effective vaccine or cure has been found yet) are only concerned with the health of whites and are leaving the black population to their own devices. Posts like these — which are re-Tweeted, shared and re-shared countless times — only distort reality of the situation in America and obscure and ignore the actual crisis in Western Africa. 

So what’s the big deal? Offensive and uninformed opinions are already shared and posted on social media all day, every day on every subject imaginable, right? While this is unfortunately true, it should not be an excuse. Do not re-post, share or write insensitive or sensationalist things about Ebola on the Internet. It is perpetuating irrational fear among youth and spreading misinformation. Instead, use your voice on social media to spread the truth. Share actual statistics about the low risk Ebola poses in the U.S. and why. Raise awareness about the grave risk it has for West African populations. Focusing on health risks that are not Ebola can be helpful as well. Rutgers students in particular should pay attention to the recent outbreak of the D68 strain of the enterovirus — it has already killed one boy in Mercer County, and there are confirmed cases in children in our very own Middlesex County. 

As we all know, social media is a powerful tool to communicate knowledge and opinions instantaneously and interactively. But as responsible members of society, we should use this tool to dispel falsehoods and break through the clutter. 

Sergio Rojas is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in history and journalism and media studies. He is the chairman of Rutgers College Republicans. His column, “Common Sense Conservative,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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