Social Media Can Contribute to Despair about War but also Provide Relief

Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time in front of my phone, computer and TV, focused on the…

Mar 24, 2022

Share this...

by Larry Magid

This post first appeared in the Mercury News

Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time in front of my phone, computer and TV, focused on the war in Ukraine. On some TV news programs, it’s literally the only subject covered, sometimes in minute detail.  What we’re seeing, hearing and reading is horrific and sometimes graphic. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling sad, angry, depressed and sometimes terrified by the news. Usually, what I feel is empathy for people far away who I don’t know personally, but sometimes that deep concern turns to personal anxiety, especially when I hear about the potential for nuclear war or “World War III.”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about talking with kids about the war, but it’s not just young people who may be anxious. Adults are too. That may be especially the case for those of us who are old enough to remember the cold war. I grew up at a time when that was a constant threat. My school days were often interrupted by air raid drills, where we would be instructed to get under our desks in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike – as if a wooden desk would provide any level of protection against a massive fireball and subsequent radiation. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, I recall looking up at planes overhead to make sure they didn’t have a hammer and sickle on them. My family didn’t have a fallout shelter, but some of our neighbors did. In case you need a refresher course, Google “cold war air raid cartoon” to view the “Duck and Cover” cartoon series along with some very ominous film footage about what to do in the event of a bomb.

Since the Ukraine war began, TV news has been scary enough, but some images and video on social media are even more graphic. I know it’s important to be aware of the atrocities being committed by Vladimar Putin, but there are times when I have to look away to preserve my own sanity.

I’ve also seen some posts on social media that are infuriating: some with disinformation, including repeating Russian propaganda such as the debunked claim that the U.S. is funding bioweapons labs in Ukraine. David Victor has written an excellent primer for the New York Times, How to Avoid Sharing Misinformation on the War in Ukraine, where he lists some red flags to look out for when considering whether to share a post. They include verifying the person posting (look for a blue verification badge on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook which are often assigned to journalists and other public figures). That doesn’t prove they are right and certainly doesn’t discredit everyone without such a badge, but at least you know that people with these badges are who they say they are. Also, be wary of usernames with a long string of numbers, which are often bots.  And, as ConnectSafely suggests in our Quick-Guide to Misinformation & Media Literacy, “Search for the source and author to see what else they’ve published and what others are saying about them. Also search the subject to see what else has been written, including articles that may refute what you’re seeing.”

Social media can also be therapeutic

But social media can also have a calming affect and can be a source of accurate information, including posts from legitimate news sources. As per calming — not everything I see on social media is about the war. In fact, most of the people I follow on Facebook are using their feeds to mostly post personal news, pleasant pictures, funny stories or jokes, all of which can help breakdown isolation and reassure us that life goes on. The same goes for Instagram and TikTok. I had heard about misinformation on TikTok, and although I’m sure it’s there, I didn’t see any when I randomly scrolled through videos, most of which were people’s attempts to be funny. Even though we are living in abnormal times, my social media feed reflects a great deal of well needed normalcy. Yes, there are posts about Ukraine, but most are about “normal” things like birthdays, vacations and other life moments.

Personally, what I’ve mostly gotten from social media during this war is reaffirmation that most people — including many who don’t share my politics — are concerned and caring. It’s easy to feel powerless when confronted with all this bad news, but social media can be empowering by – at the very least – proving an opportunity to share your feelings and to take action, even if it’s just making a modest donation to benefit the victims of the war or learning about a local event to support people in the region. While it’s certainly possible to be negatively impacted by social media discussions about the war, I have found some to be reassuring and unifying.

Raising funds and donating online

I used Facebook’s fundraising tool to organize my own fundraiser to benefit World Central Kitchen, which is helping to feed Ukranian refugees. As I wrote in my funding pitch “I feel helpless when I hear the news about Ukraine. Raising money to feed refugees and people in-country won’t stop the horror, but it will do a little to ease the pain of innocent Ukrainians. Donating money to this cause may not be ‘enough,’ but it’s something that we can do.”

My Facebook friends and followers met my $2,000 goal in a matter of hours so I raised it to $5,000 and that too was exceeded. In addition to my own fundraiser, I contributed to other’s Facebook fundraisers, not only to provide modest financial support but to show my support for their efforts. Facebook gives you the option to donate anonymously, but you can also let others know you have donated without disclosing the amount, so even making a very small donation shows your support for the cause and the person raising the money. One of the big advantages to a Facebook fundraiser is that Facebook handles all the transaction costs, including any credit card fees.

Take a break

Despite the positives of interacting and being informed, there are times when we need a break from bad news. Lately, I have found myself watching a bit less TV news, especially 24/7 cable coverage that often focuses on the most horrific atrocities and frightening scenarios. Sometimes I have to “change the channel” to find something to take my mind off the world’s troubles. Or I go for walk where I appreciate my calm, peaceful neighborhood. Instead of incessant TV watching or online scrolling, I find that getting news from reputable online news sites has provided me with the information I feel I need with enough emotional content to stimulate my empathy without overstimulating my blood pressure. It’s a balancing act. We want to be informed, we want to do whatever we can do, but we also want to be able to get a good night’s sleep and avoid spinning our wheels in ways that don’t help the people of Ukraine but do hurt ourselves and those close to us.

Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives support from Meta, Twitter, TikTok and other tech companies.


Share this...