The role of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic

Jackson Kushner

During the height of COVID-19, people around the world used social media to stay connected — even while physically separated. This made COVID-19 different from previous pandemics. As countries began to quarantine, there were seismic shifts in communities and across business, which were documented and influenced by social media.

Here we look at social media’s role throughout the COVID-19 quarantine, and which trends we think continue to permeate today.

Khoros | Strategic Services

The importance of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic, and why it matters

Can you imagine first learning about a pandemic because a Boy Scout knocked on your door to tell you about it? Well, during the 1918 flu pandemic, that’s how it worked.

The CDC estimates the 1918 flu pandemic infected a third of the world’s population and killed an estimated fifty million people globally. A public health report on Minneapolis’ response to the 1918 flu shows that critical information regarding the virus was primarily shared via postal workers, Boy Scouts, and teachers; very different to how information is shared today.

Now, not only do we have access to news sources at our fingertips, but the speed at which we consume information means we have immediate access to livesaving social and medical information.

More people logged on to social media during the pandemic than ever before. A study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that 70% of respondents (Spanish adults) reported their social media use increased during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, and 87% reported increases during the second wave in 2021.

Even before the pandemic, businesses and governments used social media to share information. The severity of COVID-19, the confusion around the safest protocols, and the mandated COVID-19 quarantines all underscored the need for an even more strategic approach to social media usage.

For example, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses used social media to better support employees and customers like never before, and governments leveraged it to quickly share the latest news and information across platforms.

The pandemic in many ways sped up the adoption of digital channels for people, businesses, and governments alike and permanently shifted how we move in the world. These are the four most important social media takeaways from the pandemic.

1. Social media can provide both information and misinformation

The speed with which information could be spread was one of the biggest benefits of social media during COVID-19 — and also one of its biggest drawbacks. On the positive side, governments, healthcare agencies, and even brands used social media to provide people with a better understanding of events in real-time. But it was also usedto spread falsehoods, including miracle preventative measures, false claims about martial law, conspiracy theories, masks, and more. The spread of helpful health information was prominent, but so was the spread of misinformation.

Finding trusted sources of information duringCOVID-19 could sometimes be challenging — especially on social media. With so much incertainty, people grappled for as much information as possible and thus became more susceptible to false and sometimes hazardous claims, which they shared with to others. According to a PEW Research Center report, about half of Americans said they’d seen falsenews about COVID-19.

Distinguishing between trustworthy vs. untrustworthy sources on social media is crucial

A comprehensive WHO study on how people sought out and responded to fake news found a majority of respondents (59%) across the globe were often highly aware of untrustworthy sources. If they encountered a source that they knew to be inaccurate, 35% said they ignored it and 25% said they reported it, and 8.6% said they unfollowed the poster. In terms of positioning your brand as being reliable and worthy of an individual’s attention, none of these responses to inaccurate information promotes good outcomes.

As a business, it’s your responsibility to ensure the information you decide to share is fact-checked and accurate. On social media, be cautious to avoid alarmist or absolute language in an effort to provide help instead of instill fear. It is more important now than ever before that businesses pay attention to what they share, and stick to facts.

2. Social media can influence public response to outbreaks

Here are a few of the most distinct ways social media influenced the public at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — especially when lockdowns started in March 2020.

Social distancing and home quarantine provide opportunities for digital connection

Until COVID-19, many of us hadn’t even heard of “social distancing.” Soon after the world went into lockdown, social media users called for social distancing and encouraged people to stay strong during mandated quarantines.

One of the benefits of social media during the first wave of the pandemic was it enabled helpful information to be easily shared with a wide audience.

Meanwhile, many organizations even came up with creative ways to continue engaging with people via social media. For example the Getty Museum asked people to recreate works of art using items found in their homes and post them to their social accounts.

“Quarantine culture” became a trend as society went from dealing with the lockdown to embracing it — changing the ways brands interacted with consumers.

Social media both promotes and discourages pandemic-related behaviors

At the start of the pandemic, many people panic-purchased things like household goods, sanitization products, and food in fear that necessities would become scarce— much like you would see with a natural disaster.

On social media, we saw panic buying discussed in two distinct ways: (1) people posting about their own panic buying, showing images of carts filled with toilet paper, water bottles, and frozen meals; and (2) people posting pictures of empty shelves or other people’s carts as a way to shame supposed panic buyers.

During this time, it was key for businesses to ease consumer fears that led to panic buying. With social media, businesses could quickly update customers and clients with information on supply chain and restocks. Businesses also have authority to speak on how customers can obtain products responsibly and sustainably — making the business-to-consumer connection stronger. 

3. Social media provides a platform for socially responsible product marketing and branding

The COVID-19 outbreak was a defining moment for many brands in how they chose to market their products. Some took advantage of people’s fear during the pandemic by selling snake oil-type products (think essential oils claiming to provide immunity), while others took the opportunity to do right by their customers and the community.

Social media highlights product needs and opportunities brought on by new circumstances

As the pandemic ramped up, we saw businesses pay extra attention to emerging trends, such as the increased search volume for things like face masks and hand sanitizer.

In fact, many brands responded to the overall increase in demand by pivoting from their normal products to produce these suddenly in-demand goods. Alcohol companies like Anheuser-Busch shifted from brewing beer to making hand sanitizer, Tesla began producing ventilators, and Brooks Brothers went from stitching suits to face masks.

Other examples of pandemic-related marketing that filled a sudden need include stores and restaurants emphasizing curbside pick-up and delivery services and the countless “video-conference” advertisements aimed toward people working at home.

Brands focused on socially responsible product marketing

Despite the uptick in alarmist-focused media spend, many businesses provided powerful and empathetic responses to COVID-19. Brands recognized their main responsibility was to provide for the safety and well-being of their employees and customers.

In response to a tweet sent by a librarian in Dubai, Audible made a wide selection of titles free for kids and teens for the duration of the pandemic, helping them to fill hours spent at home, unmoored from the usual schedules.

Dial spread awareness about the proper handwashing technique and Reebok offered to create customized home workouts for consumers.

4. Social media can bring positivity during a scary time

No platform is perfect. While we saw misinformation and fear on social media, there was also an abundance of lifesaving information, connection, and global unity. Social media let us share experiences with family and friends to combat isolation while reminding us we’re all in this together.

Here are a few of the ways that social media made positive impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Fundraisers were organized and distributed on social to help raise money for those in need

COVID-19 put many — especially the elderly, those with disabilities, working parents who lost childcare, and those who lost their jobs — in challenging situations. During the pandemic, communities rallied by sharing fundraisers with large audiences on social media.

On an individual level, the role social media played during the quarantine period helped people offer support in any way they could, such as picking up groceries for individuals who were unable to leave home. The importance of social media during lockdown for keeping people connected shouldn’t be underestimated.

Many local businesses used social media to spread the word about how local communities could support them during the pandemic, and corporations used it to fundraise and spread information about assistance initiatives.

Social media after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 is the first pandemic with social media. We’re just beginning to understand social media’s role in how people experience and handle outbreaks of this scale. In the years to come, more studies will show us exactly how social media influences the ways the public and businesses alike respond to such an unprecedented global event, and how those responses on a public platform impact individuals, corporations, and governments.

If one thing is for sure, it’s that the pandemic has forever changed the ways in which brands interact with consumers — and social media is at the forefront of that shift. Social media usage during the pandemic shaped us, our businesses, and our government. In our twenty years of experience improving CX, Khoros has never seen so many businesses have to shift and adjust to so much so quickly.

Manage your social media during the pandemic and beyond with Khoros

Khoros is proud to have helped our clients throughout COVID-19. We also encourage you to check out our COVID-19 resource page and COVID-19 Marketing webinar, or any of the following resources we created for marketing and social media during COVID-19:

Need help managing your social media? Khoros is here for you through the good times and the bad. We help our clients reduce time spent managing social media and more with unified social listening, planning, and publishing. Our social media management tools help you scale, elevate, protect, and measure your social content, while our digital customer service tools for social media and review platforms allow you to manage service inquiries across channels.

Request a demo today and learn how Khoros can help you create customers for life!

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