Social media and COVID-19: Is Gone Girl an accurate representation of how social media is causing mass hysteria?

Now more than ever, we are seeing the negative impacts of social media spreading false information. (Image source: The New Yorker)

By Eva Blandis | @BlandisEva

Although social media helps to keep us informed and connected, it is one of the primary vehicles for spreading fake news.

David Fincher’s film adaptation of the novel Gone Girl (2014) shows its audience how quickly false information can travel and create hysteria. The film explores the public judgement Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) faces when his wife, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), goes missing. After Amy’s disappearance, the media accuse Nick of murdering his wife.

The power of the media, especially social media, is depicted in the film to showcase the negative impacts the spread of fake news can have on a person’s life. The public is currently facing a similar situation as the world confronts a global pandemic.

Baylor University Professor James A. Roberts is an expert on consumer behaviour. In an interview with Baylor Media, Professor Roberts said, “The media benefits from creating hysteria; more people watch and listen when they’re frightened.” We have seen mass hysteria leave supermarket shelves empty during the pandemic, and recent research by Brandwatch suggests the media’s extensive coverage of ‘panic-buying’ caused a significant spike in social media mentions of the issue. 

As is evident in recent times, and in Gone Girl, public anger and fear can cause people to believe in anything that helps them comprehend the unpredictable nature of events. There is no doubt that without fear, there would be no basis for mass hysteria and less of an incentive for people to spread fake news.

Media outlets should be held accountable for uncritically amplifying misleading information and manipulating facts to fit their audience’s ‘needs’. Gone Girl is an important example of how news outlets sometimes deliver factual news misleadingly, which creates panic.

In the film, Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) is an influential journalist who talks at length about Amy Dunne’s disappearance. Due to her large female following, she delivers information in a way that creates anger in her audience. This influence is evident at various points in the film. For example, when Nick Dunne’s neighbour shouts at a rally, “What did you do to your pregnant wife?”, Ellen answers this question on her show by having an expert cite statistics about the number of pregnant women who are murdered by their partners. Although this was factually correct information, it did not pertain to the accusation at hand; meaning Ellen misled her audience to believe the claim against Nick had been verified. 

The BBC One miniseries The Victim (2019)offers another illustrative example of how social media can play a damaging role in a crisis or controversy. The Victim follows the story of a mother (Kelly Macdonald) who tries to find the man convicted of her murdering her son 14 years earlier.

During her vendetta, she posts a photo on social media of the man she believes to be responsible. As the story progresses, the implications of her social media post spiral out of control, and the audience is shown how the general public can be led to believe anything they see online. As a result, the accused man is brutally attacked by a member of the public at his own house.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide an outlet for people to question and discuss information with anyone around the world. However, some of the information shared can be incorrect, creating further confusion among the public.

We continue to see people reacting irrationally and irresponsibly to the COVID-19 pandemic, and during times of emotional hardship, it is even harder to discern what is fake and real. To prevent the spread of fake news and its consequences, we need to be increasingly aware of its existence — especially during times of fear.

Gone Girl and The Victim portray a real-life problem, accurately depicting the media’s influence on what people believe to be true. If there is anything that we can learn from these dramatisations,it is that believing and sharing misinformation on social media can have disastrous consequences. Being aware of this is the first step towards identifying fake news and lessening its influence. So while it is challenging to be constantly sceptical of everything we read online, it is absolutely essential.

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