Social Media, Conflict & COVID-19: How to communicate during a pandemic.

By May 4, 2020 No Comments

Written by Sarah Blake & Dr Sam Hardy

Over the past few months social media has been overrun with discussion about the corona virus and its impact on us all. Talk about information overload – everyone is sharing information, opinions and conspiracy theories!

Right now, people are thirsty for certainty, familiarity and answers. But at the same time, most of us are exhausted just trying to find our way through the emotional, financial and health costs of the current situation. It’s hard to find the energy to critically analyse information as well as everything else.

This pressure causes people to act out. They tend to become emotional about things that previously they could have managed calmly. They say things they wouldn’t normally say. They also bed down their position and beliefs as these are familiar and make them feel safe. Then they judge and they blame others who have different beliefs or are behaving in ways we don’t like.

Not surprisingly, this creates conflict that escalates quickly. People stop listening to each other and become more aggressive in their communication. They lose perspective, focusing more sharply on achieving what they want to the exclusion of others. This quickly spirals into a cycle of increasingly heated interactions, with personal attacks and harsh judgments of others’ choices.

What we have seen in the online debate through social media includes comments such as these:

  • “How disgusting I think this decision is just for lazy parents to send their kids back to school because they CBF.” 
  • “Common sense needs to prevail right now, not just lazy mums who can’t handle their kids being at home.”
  • “Your compromised immune system is neither my responsibility nor my fault. It’s not the world’s place to stroke anyone’s sense of victimhood.” 

These types of inflammatory comments add fuel to what is already a fragile community struggling to do what is right. They also lock people into warring positions, polarising and pitching families against each other.

Considering what might be driving these outbursts we are seeing in our on-line communities, can help us understand how to work together and support each other’s needs rather than dig into the trenches.

Here’s what we know is likely to be happening:

1.    The situation impacts on our loved ones, and we want to protect them.

One of the reasons people are getting so worked up about this issue is that it impacts on our loved ones. We all want to protect the people we care about – our children, our parents, our grandparents, and our friends. We want them to be healthy, to feel safe and free, and to be able to make a living. In the current situation, all of these things are under threat. When our loved ones are threatened, we feel afraid. And when we are afraid, we revert to our standard fight or flight responses.

We respond and react while emotions are high. We get angry when others seem to be behaving in ways that put our loved ones at risk. We try to persuade others to do ‘the right thing’ and we want harsh punishment meted out to those who do ‘the wrong thing’. We start to narrow our focus and revert to simplistic “good guy / bad guy” categories. We forget that this situation is highly complex and that there are no easy choices for anyone. We seem unable to accept that people are doing the best they can, even if it isn’t what we would do for ourselves. Here’s a great clip from a conversation between Russell Brand and Brene Brown about whether people are doing the best they can.

No alt text provided for this image

2.    We feel like we are not in control of our own destinies.

In the current environment, it feels like we have little control over our own situation. We are at the mercy of government policies, the behaviour of others, financial pressures, family responsibilities.

One way we typically try to gain control is to gather information and to share information to try to persuade others to behave in a way that we think is right. However, the reality of the situation is that what we think is right, may not be right for others. They may be dealing with different pressure that we will never know about or understand.

When we feel out of control, we tend to simplify things in our own minds to give us a sense of control. We filter out information and perspectives that challenge us. We create stories that support our ideas of good and evil, in which wrong doers get their comeuppance and the good guys prevail. Being ‘right’ makes us feel good and give us a sense of power and control but can alienate us from others. We fall into the “you’re with us or you’re against us” ways of thinking.

This fuels the conflict and damages relationships at a time of our most vulnerable.

3.    We all have lots and lots of incomplete information.

In this environment, it’s hard to know where to find accurate information, and who to trust in providing it. There is so much conflicting information available, both from official and unofficial sources. And we can’t help but feel like we are not getting the whole story. The reality is that there are multiple stories out there, some based on reality and some not.

People are getting overwhelmed with too much information, much of which is contradictory. This creates confusions and leaves people feel more stressed. The pressure to make the right decision at the right time is enormous!

On some of the school and community pages we have seen people share opinions as fact (justifying this because it is the opinion of someone important). Others interpret data to suit their own agenda – “I feel scared, so you should do as I say”. On the surface, people are just trying to make a positive impact with the best of intentions, however mostly it just leads to the conflict becoming personal rather than a discussion about different information.

To make matters worse, the truth is never black and white because how we interpret the data will impact the decisions we make. Each of us will consciously and unconsciously seek validation from sources that align with our beliefs. And then we will try to help out by informing and educating others who we believe do not have the right information!

The forums in which we share information suddenly find themselves having to rapidly adjust to try and deal with the emerging situation. What was perhaps their original purpose has now morphed into something different. For example, school and community groups (such as “buy nothing” groups) are now bombarded with posts about COVID-19. Moderators are often unsure how to respond. Should they block the sharing of information and discussion about COVID-19 or will they be accused of not supporting the group if they don’t allow it? This is particularly so in school parent chat groups, where parents are collectively worried about their children’s wellbeing, and it can be hard to draw the line between what’s directly relevant to the school and what falls outside it.

4.    There is no simple answer.

This is a time of complexity and uncertainty – two things that humans find very challenging to live with. There is no simple solution to the corona virus, and there is no simple solution to managing conflict in this time. What we can work on individually is showing some more compassion, generosity and self-regulation in the way we interact in person and online. We can choose how we respond to stress and in conflict, creating a way to de-escalate and bring understanding rather than add fuel to the fire.

A woman is using a mega phone to try and communicate to someone else. It is loud, strong and too much!

Tips to manage conflict in high stress times

Here are our tips to help guide you through the communication challenges that emerge during high stress such as this pandemic, particularly on social media and the on-line world.

1.    Pause before you Post

Much like the saying “pause before you hit send”, the same applies on-line. It’s important to consider these questions before you post. If in doubt, don’t post.

  • Why am I sharing this?
  • Is this based on official sources?
  • How will others receive this?
  • Am I likely to cause conflict or offend someone by doing this?
  • Are these risks worth it?

2.    Limit information sharing on-line

If you are responsible for moderating a group, limit information about the virus, unless this is your specific role you are better referring them to direct sources.

This includes limiting personal opinions about the virus. If there is an official source of information relevant to people, refer the group here instead. Don’t replicate information as it overloads people.

3.    Empathy is not about converting others

Everyone is doing the best they can right now. Some people are doing better than others. But judging others is not likely to change their behaviours. “Educating” others is not likely to change their values. The more we push, the more others will push back – the more everyone will get entrenched and stop listening to each other.

4.    Respect each other’s choices

We are each facing different pressures right now. Not everyone is able to, or willing to, self-isolate. Not everyone has the same information or considers the same information from the same perspective as you. Everyone has different priorities and values and all of these are valid from each person’s perspective.

Our relationships within and across our communities will be critical to a successful recovery process. And while we are, from one perspective, all in this together, it’s also important to remember that everyone’s experience is different. Everyone has their own particular challenges and choices to make, and they may be different from our own. The recovery process is likely to be long. We are going to need connections and community to rebuild our lives. We need to try to do everything we can to not create divisions and hatred right now. We need each other!

About the Authors: Sarah Blake is a corporate trainer and multi award winning conflict strategist with 25 years industry experience. With a focus on multiparty high conflict situations, Sarah helps leaders clarify complex problems so they can make better decisions.

Dr Samantha Hardy is a conflict management specialist and lead trainer at CCI Academy, providing flexible online conflict leadership training. Sam has a PhD in law and conflict resolution and is the founder of the REAL Conflict Coaching System.

Leave a Reply