Using Social Media in Times of Crisis

Using Social Media in Times of Crisis

Big Ideas

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March 15 2020
Big Ideas

We use social media for lots of reasons: connecting with friends and family, looking up recipes, following celebrities, supporting favourite sports teams, and catching highway and weather reports. A more serious use is when we look to Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms for information during crises. 

We are experiencing a truly world-wide situation with the quick spread of COVID-19: in other words, a pandemic. At the time of writing, cases have been confirmed in over half the countries in the world, the U.S. has banned inbound flights from mainland Europe, and many professional sports leagues have suspended their seasons.

The Facts about Coronavirus (COVID-19)

The Coronavirus (CoV) family includes seven known virus strains. Four strains cause minor ailments like the common cold. Two strains – Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) – cause more serious diseases that can be life-threatening. The most recent strain originated in Wuhan, China, and was named SARS-CoV-2; on February 11, the disease it causes was named “coronavirus disease 2019”, abbreviated as COVID-19. In social media, it goes by several hashtags:  

  • #COVID19
  • #2019nCoV 
  • #coronavirus

One reason why so much media is dedicated to the virus and its disease is that the seventh strain is new. There’s not yet a treatment or vaccine, it’s not yet precisely known how it spreads or how long the virus lives on surfaces, and it’s believed that no one has immunity.

Connecting through Social Media in Darker Times 

There’s a lot of great information about the virus on social media channels, there’s some humour (#ToiletPaperApocalypse), and there’s plenty of misinformation. Unless they’re from reputable sources, posts are generally not fact-checked, nor are they often proofread.Social media in crises image - humour 

With a simple like or share from one person, posts show up in their followers’ feeds.  

We turn to social media to connect with people and with information. The number of areas affected by COVID-19 is increasing and the information sources – and “information” sources – are also increasing. Social media is often turned to for news because of its ease of access and prevalence. A year ago, 52% of Canadians reported using Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as their news source, although only 32% of Canadians trusted social media.

New York Times article described how Facebook, Google, and Twitter are working to remove coronavirus misinformation from their platforms. The massive volume of incorrect information was called an “infodemic” by Aleksandra Kuzmanovic of the World Health Organization. The WHO is working with social media influencers and online information channels to promote valid news. When we searched “#coronavirus” on Twitter, tweets with that tag were served, topped with a link to the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 information page.Social media in crises image - Twitter

Some social media messaging is simply inaccurate; some messaging, however, is deliberately posted as inaccurate. Case in point:

A tweet that looks to have been sent by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced that all schools in the state would be closed “indefinitely” on March 16. Less than three hours later, the Kentucky Department of Education tweeted that the post was false and included a link to the Governor’s Twitter account.​

Where do I go to get the RIGHT Information?

To ensure we’re seeing verified, truthful information, I’ve recently started following a few new accounts including @WHO, @CPHO_Canada, and @GovCanHealth.

News can help you feel connected to others in the same situation, or part of that situation. On February 28, 67 million people mentioned “coronavirus” on social media. As a Forbes article explained, “tracking [social media] mentions and comparing them provides a much more robust picture of what the world cares about the most.” ​Right now, social media topics show we generally care most about COVID-19.

Online Features for Emergency Situations

As we explored the topic of using social media in times of emergency, we recalled a neat Facebook initiative called “Safety Check”. It’s a geo-targeted feature triggered when “crisis reporting agencies” alert Facebook about potentially dangerous events like earthquakes. If many Facebook users post about that event in the affected geography, those people may receive a Facebook notification asking them to mark themselves “safe”. Facebook friends of those users will see if someone has checked in as “I’m safe”, offering them some assurance about those who are in the vicinity of potential harm.Social media in crises image - FB Safety Check

Google has an “SOS alert” that tops search results for “coronavirus”. Information links are listed from the Government of Canada and WHO.Social media in crises image - Google SOS

Social media is used to communicate information, quickly. In times of emergencies, social media is used for sending alerts about missing children and impending bad weather. Since 2018, LTE smartphones have been included in the Canadian Alert Ready announcements, giving immediate access to warnings affecting specific regions. Although we may be thinking about keeping our physical distance from people, we can stay close and informed with the smart use of social media.

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