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time November 24 2020
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Home Knowledge Articles The Role of Social Media during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Role of Social Media during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Rory Cellan-Jones wrote an interesting article for the BBC a few days back wondering what it may have been like if this pandemic had struck in 2005.

His main contention was that since we were not as well connected at that time due to 1. Technology for internet connectivity and smart phone penetration not being up to speed and 2. “Social media” apps not being as prevalent, we would’ve struggled to spread awareness as effectively as we have been able to do so now.

There is some merit to his stance as it is true that Facebook was only about a year old, Instagram or WhatsApp still didn’t exist, YouTube was launched the same year and Twitter followed just a year later. Most importantly perhaps Apple launched its first iPhone in 2007.

We can keep going on with examples of Skype, Zoom, TikTok etc. but coming back to the more familiar apps, Facebook has over 2.5 billion monthly active users today globally, compared to just 5.5 million at the end of 2005. YouTube has pretty much the same whereas Instagram has a billion+ compared to zero in 2005.

Closer to home if one looks at where Pakistan stands today in terms of Internet connectivity, it may still be a surprise to some. To put things into context, Pakistan’s internet penetration is still around 34%, with mobile penetration being 76.5%, out of which 3G/4G connectivity is 41% and TV penetration being 91%. There are about 36 million users of Facebook, about the same number for YouTube, 5.3 million for Instagram and 4.1 million for Twitter in Pakistan .

Right from the outset, if I count mobile connectivity as well, more than half of Pakistan’s population are not online (read my article on LinkedIn: “What about all the offline consumers”). That’s correct, 52 to 122 million Pakistanis are not online!

So with this context, what has the role of social media really been during the coronavirus pandemic? Positive or Negative? Has it spread fear, stress, depression and panic or has it spread calmness and serenity?

There have been countless articles propagating fake news and misinformation ranging from the most hilarious (releasing 180 lions on the streets of Moscow) to being outright incorrect (Coronavirus dies in the stomach). Magical cures and conspiracy theories have been bandied about, stories about how China and South Korea got it right and guidelines on what we MUST do to “break the chain” and “flatten the curve”.

Many keyboard warriors have taken it upon themselves to force people to stay indoors and ridicule those who don’t, right from the comfort of their own homes. Our politicians haven’t left any stone unturned in playing their games during these times and given plenty of fodder for the social media enthusiasts to populate their posts with. You have your fair share of memes and time pass videos with ridiculous challenges and dares being endlessly posted on Facebook.

Then you have the business minded people who always see opportunity during crises. Suddenly we have a whole new playbook for “what brands should or should not do during the crisis?”, “10 tips to work from home” and “5 marketing lessons to be learnt from the pandemic” type of articles and workshops popping up out of nowhere on LinkedIn. Research agencies who take a minimum of 12 to 16 weeks to turnaround results and findings from any commissioned project suddenly have overnight reports on how consumers are behaving, how their habits are changing and what we as brands should talk about during the crisis. The usual philanthropists came out as they always do and started preparing for the worst, new ones sprang up as they did during the earthquake in 2005 and the floods of 2010, all using social media to ask people to contribute as much as they could.

A lot of articles on maintaining mental health during crises have suggested that we should somehow insulate ourselves from over exposure to news around the virus as that may lead to anxiety and depression. We have already seen reports of suicides emerging from Italy and Germany due to stress related to the virus directly.

Even the government is trying to use Facebook for its Ehsaas program to try and connect donors to charity providers and the poor, which is no surprise for the incumbent party.

WhatsApp has really stepped up during this crisis by being the forum where debates and multimedia are shared like doling out breadcrumbs to pigeons. Videos of police treatment during lockdown, news snippets, what celebrities are saying and doing, notices from the government etc. etc. The fact that most affordable data packages offered by our telecom providers only allow for WhatsApp and Facebook, means that these 2 apps specifically get to penetrate deeper than any other and therefore have been the tools through which most information, right or wrong, has been disseminated.

What we have witnessed and are seeing on Facebook and the likes is no different to any other time of heightened interest in my view. Take the elections of 2013 and then again in 2018. Everything mentioned above can be applied to those 2 events as well with only the subject being different. The behaviors and roles are the same.

The main difference being, this time it’s the entire world that is involved in an existential threat, which is not going away anytime soon. Even during the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks, we didn’t witness such hysteria on a global level, perhaps because they remained isolated in certain parts of the world and perhaps because these apps didn’t have as many subscribers.

Social media has definitely played a role in spreading awareness about the pandemic and the healthy practices we need to follow in order to stay safe. It has also helped popularize certain slogans like #staysafestayhome or #flattenthecurve, which means if you follow them, you instantly get a gate pass to “cool”. It has given our heroic medical workers, doctors and nurses a medium to make their personal pleas and share “real” stories vs. what you may or may not be seeing on traditional media. But, just as the PM stated in one of his addresses, that “the lockdown won’t work if only people in Defence and Islamabad stay at home”, leaving people rudderless on social media won’t work either.

Having established above that a big chunk of the population is still offline and probably relies on TV for news updates, a coordinated campaign was what was needed across the plethora of TV channels AND on social media. However, this too had to be taken up by the big companies in form of their ‘subtly’ branded messages, which anyways got drowned out by the regular ads and promos of the channels themselves.

It is said that people crave leadership in times of crisis and that the role of leadership is to provide clarity, in terms of news, honesty, in terms of the grimness of the situation and hope, in terms of a coherent, well thought out policy for the way forward. The tool that the leadership would use in these times would be a mixture of both traditional and social media, however given our structure, all we’re seeing is missed opportunities and a lot of confusion allowing the 36 million people on Facebook in Pakistan an open playing field.

In conclusion, the role of social media during this pandemic has been no different to what it is to most global events of interest in the recent times, but it could’ve been and still can be so much more if used responsibly and as an addendum to traditional media.



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    Sheikh Adil Hussain is a bona fide marketing enthusiast and has spent over 15 years in the FMCG world with companies like P&G, Henkel and Shan Foods based in Karachi, Dubai and Dusseldorf. He has led teams in local, regional and international roles being exposed to multiple international markets in GCC, MENA and the rest of the world, while managing brands such as Pampers, Vicks, Persil, Pril, DAC, Vernel, Shoop and Shan. Currently he is heading the marketing department at Shan Foods.

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