As college students, we are constantly exposed to an endless stream of social media, and with the rise of popular apps such as TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, it is easy to get caught up in the online jokes. Of course, laughing at these jokes doesn’t make us bad people; it just means we have been desensitized to the media definition of “humor,” which is often denigrating to others. However, the recent response to the coronavirus outbreak suggests we might be taking this humor a little too far.
On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the coronavirus, a highly contagious, viral disease that first began in Wuhan, China, a global health emergency. Since then, there has been a surge in anxiety among the public. People are using social media to express their concerns, and for good reason. Public health officials have yet to determine the cause of the virus, and the number of people affected is rapidly increasing.
However, another “strain” has quickly emerged on social media. In recent years, there has been a trend of responding to national crises on social media with memes and jokes — and this time is no different. On Instagram, people are posting images of the coronavirus that are intended to garner laughs. Even more disturbing is that some individuals are using social media to express racist sentiments about people of Chinese descent. According to the New York Times, the hashtag #chinesedontcometojapan has been trending on Twitter, and some users on Instagram are using the hashtag #coronavirus to garner attention and likes.
As students, we must take a stand against racism and xenophobia, and one way to start is to boycott and report social media accounts that use people’s fears about the coronavirus as conduit for racism. This increase in racist sentiments on social media mirrors the trend that took place from approximately 2014-2016, when concerns about the Ebola virus resulted in mass hysteria. Similarly, people on the internet and TV made jokes about being infected by the deadly virus, even posting pictures of themselves dressed up as the Ebola virus for Halloween.
While most of these jokes were likely made without ill intent, the ways in which social media and the general public responded to the crisis not only ignored the fact that Ebola has affected people for years, but spread false information to the public surrounding the virus. And those making fun of the outbreak fail to consider the very scary reality for those affected and their families.
While there is nothing wrong with dark humor itself — I personally have used satire and dark humor to cope with some tough situations during my life — the problem arises when we use it in excess or in such a way that mocks or minimizes the struggles and suffering of others. Using humor tends to skew the facts surrounding an event, and misconstruing information can actually lead to increased anxiety and panic.
Fortunately, social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, are all taking steps to remove misleading information surrounding the epidemic, but that doesn’t negate the damage that has been done from jokes which have already been posted, nor does it completely eliminate everyday conversation surrounding the virus.
Another reason students should be wary of posting or referencing jokes about the coronavirus, as well as other public health crises, is the potential negative impact on students who have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or anxiety. One of the ways anxiety can manifest itself is through an irrational fear of illness, and this can be triggered by excessive talk about certain diseases or illness such as the coronavirus.
As someone with severe anxiety, I know what it feels like to see articles about a certain illness and feel as though I am at imminent risk of contracting the illness, even though my sense of logic tells me otherwise. When I see jokes like these, I see people minimizing the struggles of people like me by inducing a sense of irrational fear.
By talking about the coronavirus and other diseases in a joking manner or making jokes about everyday objects being infected with coronavirus, we could be unknowingly triggering someone with anxiety or OCD.
While I am not suggesting we eliminate humor as a coping skill, we should always consider the repercussions of what we joke about. While social media can easily blur the line between humorous and offensive, we should stop and think before posting or repeating an insensitive joke or “fact” that has not been verified, because we never know the impact it might have on those around us.