Instagram users take advantage of coronavirus hashtag as death toll grows

As the coronavirus crisis descends on the world, social media users have taken to their favourite platforms to document their own experiences amid the deadly outbreak.

Millions of posts are being shared across Chinese sites including Weibo, WeChat and TikTok, with images and video, some unverified, revealing the drastic actions of citizens and authorities.

In the last few days, images of residents wearing plastic water bottles on their heads as a form of make-shift protection and videos of exhausted medical staff inside hospitals breaking down have gone viral.

The surge in coronavirus-related content hasn’t solely been reserved for Asian social media apps, with western apps also seeing a rise in activity.

A screenshot of coronavirus posts on Chinese site Weibo.
An array of content on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. Source: Sina Weibo

Instagram, which still has several million users in China despite being banned, is also awash with an array of content linked to the virus that has so far killed 170 people and infected more than 8000.

Not all the posts offer eye-opening images and videos from within the epicentre, with a small percentage of posts, sometimes in a distasteful manner, adding humour to the crisis, including the use of memes.

One running joke online is based on the Mexican beer Corona, which shares its name with the virus.

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Yet even more concerning is the Instagram accounts which appear to be hijacking the coronavirus hashtag in an alleged bid to boost traction on posts with little or no relation to the outbreak whatsoever.

Dotted among the thousands of posts using the hashtag are images of men and women posing, sometimes in places geographically far from China.

One man used the hashtag for a topless selfie of himself alongside #chestworkout.

One man shared a topless photo, using the hashtag alongside #chestworkout and #kobe in reference to the basketball star's recent death. Source: Instagram
One man shared a topless photo, using the hashtag alongside #chestworkout and #kobe in reference to the basketball star's recent death. Source: Instagram
One candid shot from a woman in Azerbaijan uses the hashtag, despite her laughing in the shot. Source: Instagram
One candid shot from a woman in Azerbaijan uses the hashtag, despite her laughing in the shot. Source: Instagram

Another woman in Azerbaijan shared a candid photo of herself smiling and seemingly unnerved by the crisis, despite using the hashtag.

One video post used the hashtag for a gym workout.

Disturbingly, several users also used the hashtag alongside #kobe, a tag being used to pay tribute to basketball star Kobe Bryant’s tragic death.

The worrying trend comes after several social media influencers were accused of using photos of themselves in masks to garner publicity.

A gym workout video included the hashtag. Source: Instagram
A gym workout video included the hashtag. Source: Instagram
One woman promoting mental health posted a bikini shot alongside the hashtag. She also used the #kobe. Source: Instagram
One woman promoting mental health posted a bikini shot alongside the hashtag. She also used the #kobe. Source: Instagram

Notably, Malaysian-Chinese YouTube star, Jeii Pong, shared a thigh and belly-baring photo of herself posing in a black crop top, plaid mini-skirt and blue face mask with her 422k followers.

Such posts have raised debate as to whether users are trying to raise awareness of the virus or simply posting in a bid to go viral.

The hijacking of a hashtag created for crises is nothing new.

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One woman shared four photos of herself from Shanghai, seemingly undisturbed about the coronavirus sweeping the nation. Despite the hashtag, she talks about how to look like a unicorn in her caption. Source: Instagram
One woman shared four photos of herself from Shanghai, seemingly undisturbed about the coronavirus sweeping the nation. Despite the hashtag, she talks about how to look like a unicorn in her caption. Source: Instagram
One peculiar post from California has an array of hashtags. Source: Instagram
One peculiar post from California has an array of hashtags. Source: Instagram

The ongoing bushfire crisis across Australia has also attracted hundreds of posts, some which have been scrutinised due to their perceived irrelevance to the fires.

Hashtag hijacking is ‘shallow’, expert says

Social media expert Ryan Shelley, who founded and is the managing director of Pepper IT, told Yahoo News Australia in December that a national or global crisis will unfortunately attract a minority wanting to use it for personal gain.

“Social media is a powerful platform for communities to come together. Regrettably, some people continue to take advantage of devastating events and circumstances,” he said.

Mr Shelley said some people may be oblivious to whether they’re doing anything wrong at all.

“It all comes back to someone’s moral compass and the self-regulation that occurs within their social communities. It often requires one’s peers to provide feedback that will resonate.”

Mr Shelley previously labelled those who capitalise off tragedies as “shallow”.

“It’s unacceptable,” he said.

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