The role of social media during a pandemic
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The role of social media during a pandemic

by Jackson Kushner | Mar 25, 2020

In the face of COVID-19, social media is a great way for individuals and communities to stay connected even while physically separated.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, which the CDC estimates infected a third of the world’s population, people didn’t have the same sources of communication we now have in the 21st century to quickly share news and information. For context, a public health report on Minneapolis’s response to the 1918 flu shows that critical information regarding the virus was primarily shared via postal workers, Boy Scouts, and teachers. Can you imagine having learned about COVID-19 from a Boy Scout knocking on your door, encouraging you to wash your hands?

With the advent of social media in the 21st century, not only are we learning the latest news updates, but we’re also using platforms like Facebook and Twitter to provide personal and business updates. For businesses, this means leveraging social media to support employees and customers like never before. For the government, it means doing its best to efficiently share factual and up-to-date information.

Taking a look at how individuals, businesses, and government agencies have been sharing information and interacting with others on social media in the past few weeks, here are four primary roles that social platforms are playing during the COVID-19 outbreak:

1. A source of information (and misinformation)

Never have we had more realtime information available at our fingertips in the face of a worldwide event. Such information can help keep us safe, providing us with a better understanding of what is occurring and how it might impact us and those we love. Yet, social media can also spread falsehoods, including miracle preventative measures, false claims about the implementation of martial law, conspiracy theories, and more.

Finding trusted sources of information regarding COVID-19 is extremely important.

Social media companies are working to combat misinformation on coronavirus

At a time where many of us are grappling for as much information as we can get our hands on, the public is especially susceptible to false and sometimes hazardous claims, which are then passed on to others. According to a new PEW Research Center report, about half of Americans say they’ve seen made-up news about the coronavirus.

Distinguishing between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources on social media

The best rule of thumb for making sure information is accurate is to check original sources and make sure that (a) those sources are indeed trustworthy, and (b) the information was relayed accurately. Just because someone claims to have learned something from a reliable source doesn’t mean they’re relaying that information accurately.

If you’re the one presenting information, whether on behalf of a business or your personal account, it’s your responsibility to cite and fact-check your own sources. Be wary of using verbiage that is alarmist or absolute. There are still so many unknowns about the virus, and nobody is sure what the coming weeks and months hold. It’s always best to be cognizant of this and avoid unnecessary bold statements.

2. An influence on public response to the outbreak

Billions of people are free to publicly share their opinions on COVID-19 across various social platforms. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen individuals, organizations, and businesses use social media to spread awareness of COVID-19, as well as the public actions that can be taken.

Here are a few of the most distinct ways social media has influenced the public since the virus reached epidemic and pandemic levels:

Social distancing and home quarantine are trending

Until a few weeks ago, many of us hadn’t even heard of “social distancing,” which refers to staying at least 6 feet away from others to help prevent the spread of infection. Now, social media users, from friends and family to celebrities and governments, are regularly calling for social distancing.

Boasting and shaming panic buying

Many people have been excessively purchasing household goods, sanitization products, and food in fear that necessities will no longer be accessible — just like they do when there is a hurricane or some other natural disaster. This over-purchasing has become so commonplace that social media users have coined a phrase to describe it: panic buying.

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

3. A marketing platform

The COVID-19 outbreak presents a defining moment for many brands in how they choose to market their product.

Unfortunately, we’re going to see people who are selling snake oil-type products (think essential oils claiming to provide immunity). Some businesses will prey on mass hysteria, especially businesses putting extra dollars behind social media ads, selling products like hand sanitizer and facemasks (despite frequent claims from health organizations that facemasks are not effective if you don’t have the disease).

Image via Search Engine Land

Popular hashtags popping up related to social distancing and quarantining include #socialdistancing, #quarantineandchill, and #mypandemicsurvivalplan.

Socially responsible product marketing

Despite the uptick in alarmist-focused media spend, there are many businesses providing powerful and empathetic responses to COVID-19. The main responsibility of brands right now is to provide for the safety and well being of their employees and customers. That said, there are certain business models that lend themselves particularly well to providing relief for many people during this time.

Streaming services, for instance, are providing entertainment for those bored at home. Markets and restaurants with delivery services are able to safely provide groceries and meals to those unable to venture out. Online courses are being offered for free and at reduced prices. All in all, we’re seeing many businesses do the best they can to ease the fear and discomfort being experienced by so many.

Check out this blog post on brand management during coronavirus and beyond for practical tips on responsible and efficient action.

4. A powerful way to bring positivity to a scary time

No platform is perfect. But where there has been misinformation and fear on social media, there’s also been an abundance of vital, lifesaving information, connection with others, and global unity. The ability to share experiences with family and friends helps to combat both literal and emotional isolation while also reminding us that we’re all in this together.

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

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

COVID-19 has put many people, especially the elderly, those with disabilities, working parents who are losing childcare, and those who are losing their jobs, in challenging situations. Communities are rallying together to support organizations and individuals by sharing fundraisers with large audiences on social media.

People are also taking to social media to offer support in any way they can, such as picking up groceries for individuals who are unable to leave home or sharing information on how to support local businesses who are struggling to pay their employees.

People are posting pictures and videos to share their experiences

Posts from people quarantined at home have ranged from videos of living room yoga to pictures of snuggly pets who are thrilled their owners are with them 24/7. There have also been posts acknowledging how difficult and frightening this time is. Posts have ranged from commiseration to overwhelming support — neighborhood rainbow hunt to this “mental health check-in” on a Facebook neighbors group:

These are just a couple of the millions of examples where people have shown their support and empathy on social media. And while tone and delivery vary, the message from one user to another remains constant: you are not alone in this, there are silver linings to be enjoyed, and it’s okay to experience this in any number of ways.

There is still a lot to learn

This is the first time any living generation has experienced a pandemic of this scale, and we’re just beginning to understand social media’s ultimate role. In years to come, It will serve as an incredibly precise case study in the ways the public and businesses alike respond to such an unprecedented global event, and how those responses on a public platform influence not just the actions of individuals, but of corporations and governments.


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