Social media in a time of #COVID19
Social media enables the dissemination of information quicker than ever before and are more accessible and inclusive than any other media channel. With people receiving news almost instantaneously through social media platforms, organisations have adopted social media as a critical, front-line communication tool during crises.
“There is a critical health intervention that is often unrecognised and potentially the most important of all – communication,” said Dr Brett Sutton, Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer in a recent interview on his communication approach to the COVID-19 crisis. He then went on to say, “as we contemplate health systems under huge pressure, communication becomes a health intervention that we can’t do without”. Dr Sutton is renowned for not pulling punches, he is direct, not shy in using strong language and one of the first government officials in Australia to raise the pandemic alarm giving Victoria a headstart in preparing for COVID-19.
Dr Sutton’s use of Twitter is an important crisis communication case study in itself. He pushed for approval to use Twitter (which he reports took a year to gain approval) as one of his key communication channels with the Victorian community and medical peers. Admittedly, with a few ‘missteps’ early on, Dr Sutton values the fact that he can listen to what the community is saying via Twitter and has the ability to share critical information with an enormous audience in real time, in his own voice, and respond very authentically to questions.
Social media provides unprecedented opportunities and has powerful capabilities, particularly in the midst of a crisis. The fact that social media has become interwoven into all facets of society, collapsing or blurring the boundaries between language, socio-economic status, private and professional lives online, has created a new democracy around information and superseding arbitrary borders of nation-states. It has the power to broadcast information to millions of people at exactly the same time and allows people in one location to share experiences and learn from people in another. During a crisis, like the recent Australian bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, social media becomes vital and in some instances -lifesaving.
“There is a critical health intervention that is often unrecognised and potentially the most important of all – communication… as we contemplate health systems under huge pressure, communication becomes a health intervention that we can’t do without.”
Dr Brett Sutton, Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer
Social media saves lives and communities
Social media enables the dissemination of information quicker than ever before and are more accessible and inclusive than any other media channel. With people receiving news almost instantaneously through social media platforms, organisations have adopted social media as a critical, front-line communication tool during crises. The value of social media was evident during the recent Australian bushfires where state emergency services and local firefighters used Twitter as a critical channel to inform communities of fast-moving fires, keep media and government informed and locate emerging fire fronts. The real-time reporting and the continual updates from accessible and verified Twitter accounts allowed people to make decisions before it was too late. Facebook was also critical. As well as being used by emergency services to inform, Facebook played a special role in communities and within families and friendship groups to keep track of people and fire fronts as well as access support services in fire ravaged regions, bringing the community together in a wave of comradery, donations and kindness.
Social media networks create a rich, real-world information matrix that can be utilised to develop a real-time surveillance system  for a host of issues from human health crises to natural disasters. Social media is being used to track the spread of infectious diseases and detect early outbreaks by picking up key terms and information reported by the community to the networking platforms . For example, on the African continent, during the outbreak of Ebola in 2014, the spread of infections was detected on Twitter early in the reporting of the disease to world health authorities through searching clustered terms such as fever, virus and haemorrhage – symptoms of the disease  and mention of the hashtag #Ebola, using a similar methodology with the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak in 2009.
This live community-sourced coverage to social media has been supplemented by citizen journalism, an emerging form of journalism that is mostly conducted by amateurs and ‘citizens’ in society . This grassroots form of journalism arose during the Arab Spring where social media was used as a tool by protesters to disseminate footage from rallies, coordinate real-life meetups and activities and to share their own stories  much of which was picked up by the global media agencies supplementing information and assisting their journalists on the ground. The addition of real-life experiences and voices, reported in real-time, adds to the richness of information about crises and the authenticity and impact on the population or environment. This can offer more granular and acute updates, and sometimes, fill a vacuum where official communication is lacking or where information is suppressed.
In this new world of participatory culture, that social media has fostered, traditional gatekeepers that have occasionally stopped or suppressed information from reaching an audience have been dethroned. It is anticipated that half the world’s population will be using social media by the end of 2020. COVID19 will certainly play a role in accelerating the uptake and intensity of social media as we turn to the internet, smartphones and other digital technologies  to maintain contact with news and our family and friends during isolation.
The misinformation virus
However, the combination of internet and social media accessibility,the social media echo chamber,interloping foreign agents, and ways information can be mutated, decontextualised and move quickly through online fora has created a concerning vulnerability in a large, interconnected network ecosystem of misinformation.
Misinformation is one of the biggest issues facing the digital information age. During emergencies, the quality of the information is far more important and valuable than the volume. The community are desperately seeking answers and not usually skilled at assessing fact from speculation. The equity offered by social media channels also means non-experts can comment as can agents with an alternative agenda. Misinformation can be damaging and even fatal as it can spread fast and imbed false facts within a community, deflecting from the voices that need to be heard , acting to confuse or even alienate a community, hampering efforts to protect and ensure safety.
During the Australian bushfires, misinformation spread quickly with posts claiming left-wing eco-terrorists were responsible for numerous fires, generating the trending hashtag #ArsonEmergency . This falsification of the truth is harmful and has lasting impacts as the sheer volume of misinformed social media posts dilute and challenge authoritative information from official organisations to be seen and reach their audience.
Fake news in the time of coronavirus
Authorities have been shocked and dismayed to find misinformation and false health and scientific claims spreading as fast as the coronavirus on social media over the past two months. In particular, Facebook has seen a concerning proliferation of organic posts containing false information of how to kill or cure the virus .
The democracy of social media has given an equal platform to individuals who are not medical or scientific experts. For example, Silicon Valley technologist Aaron Ginn self-published his analysis of the COVID-19 epidemiology data on the blogging platform Medium and shared to his Twitter account. The analysis, where Ginn used his marketing expertise as his credentials, garnered millions of views both on Twitter and Medium, before it was taken down by the blogging platform. His analysis has been disputed by public health researchers and epidemiologists but unfortunately the damage had been done thanks to the speed and proliferation of social media in sharing his flawed message with millions of people in days. While long-standing and trusted publications, such as the New York Times, have also been guilty of providing a platform to ‘armchair experts,’ social media is accelerating this emerging phenomenon.
Healthy debate is a normal and valued element of science
It is important to distinguish between misinformation and dissenting opinion. Social media, as a relatively decentralised and democratised communication platform, provides a space in which experts can speak out about approaches and responses to certain crises, debate emerging research findings and push for action from government figures. For the first time many of us are seeing scientists publicly debate major issues that can be misunderstood as dissent, disagreement and confusion rather than healthy debate that is necessary and valued in the sciences.
Sometimes what is advised or expressed by an expert in the field may not be the agreed message from official sources – this doesn’t mean it is incorrect, but can sometimes translate into unhelpful conjecture that feeds misinformation or fuels divisive dialogue that confuses and confounds the public. This has been evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many Australian doctors, public health researchers and epidemiologists voicing their concerns over the Australian government’s response, calling it slow and insufficient, on social media platforms such as Twitter.
This is the double-edged sword of social media. With lower barriers of entry and the traditional media gatekeepers removed, it is a forum that is susceptible to misinformation and misunderstanding while encouraging and empowering experts to speak out. While informed dissent and reasonable criticism is needed for a healthy democracy, it can add confusion, erode trust in official organisations and hinder public understanding of fast-moving crises. This requires official organisations to effectively and clearly communicate to the public and to address any disputed information.
Authoritative voices on social media are critical – as social media is for them
Official organisations play a key role in addressing and neutralising the wave of misinformation on social media platforms. In 2018, an estimated 2.65 billion people were using social media worldwide with current projections indicating an increase to almost to 3.1 billion by 2021 . Combined with cuts to traditional journalism offices around the world and the emergency of citizen journalism, there is a growing reliance on social media for trustworthy, validated and authoritative timely information, particularly during a crisis.
Organisations can effectively utilise social media by having qualified subject matter experts as a part of their social media team. During situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, having medically or scientifically-qualified individuals on social media undertaking community management and content creation is important as they can promptly respond to any questions with appropriate advice and information.
As such, these major crises are not easy for a conventional digital team to manage. The demand and expectation for fast and accurate responses during a time of crisis is intense and unrelenting, placing significant pressure on a digital or communications team, During a crisis any communications team needs to be augmented by subject matter experts and direct access to the leadership. The often-employed ‘set and forget’ approach (the process of setting content up to put out and then leaving it for a period of time ) is not sufficient and omnichannel marketing (a multi-channel approach that aims to put the customer and their experience first) in these cases is far from effective. During a crisis, constant two-way community management and feedback from the organisation is vital to ensure an audience has access to critical information and the leadership have access to intelligence from the community via social media, that should equally inform their crisis plan and direct action.
Official organisations are advised to consider paid advertisements or sponsoring content during a time of crisis to ensure authoritative content is seen first above all other content, and dropped into the home feed of non-followers across all platforms to boost the visibility of information, rather than constantly re-posting relying on hashtags and current followers within the organisations echo chamber of support.
It is also important to consider the types of audiences, behaviours, information types and the sharing format of each platform. Those on Facebook may be less likely to be on TikTok and the content format between Twitter and LinkedIn varies considerably, so to deliver the greatest impact, campaigns need to be tailored to audiences and platforms and spread across multiple platforms are most effective. Most of all organisations need to be present on social media during a time of crisis and their presence needs to be felt and seen early and clearly. Ensuring social is a high priority in the crisis communication hierarchy will satisfy (to an extent) journalists, and other core stakeholders and ensure information leadership and ownership of the message.
It is during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where official organisations should be utilising social media and the core communication channel to deliver quality, clear and relevant messages that inspire action and understanding, neutralise by addressing and dilute misinformation online to maintain an informed online and supportive community. By using social media in a timely and relevant manner, a crisis can become a very valuable opportunity to demonstrate leadership, to take control of the messaging across all media channels, build capacity and integration of the communications team into the organisation to drive more impactful long term value and outcomes and to build a critical relationship with your community, caring for them, supporting them and harnessing their support as advocates for your message and purpose.
Written by Abbey Hargreaves and Dr Anna Chen.
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