BBC News journalist Rory Cellan-Jones recently pondered the question of what it would have been like had the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2005. His contention was given that in 2005 people were not as well connected as they are today, awareness would not have been spread as effectively as it has been today.
There is merit to his point of view as in 2005, Facebook was only about a year old, YouTube was launched the same year and Twitter would follow a year later, while Instagram and WhatsApp did not exist. Most importantly perhaps, Apple launched their first iPhone in 2007 (we could keep going with examples of TikTok, Skype and Zoom). For further context, today Facebook has over 2.5 billion monthly active users globally compared to 5.5 million at the end of 2005 (YouTube has pretty much the same today), whereas Instagram has a billion+ users compared to zero in 2005.
In Pakistan, however, the picture is different. Pakistan’s internet penetration is still about 34%, mobile penetration stands at 76.5%, of which 3G/4G connectivity is 41% and TV penetration 91%. There are about 36 million Facebook and YouTube users; 5.3 million Instagram users and 4.1 million Twitter users. The fact is that even if I include mobile connectivity, more than half of Pakistan’s population is not online (see my article on LinkedIn “What about all the offline consumers?) – meaning that 52 to 122 million Pakistanis are not online.
In this context, what has been the role of social media so far in terms of the coronavirus pandemic? Positive or negative? Has it spread fear, stress, depression and panic or has it spread calm and serenity?
Rather than leaving an open playing field to social media, traditional media needs to be co-opted in spreading responsible awareness about the coronavirus.
There have been countless articles propagating fake news and misinformation, ranging from the release of 180 lions on the streets of Moscow to the notion that the coronavirus dies in the stomach. Magic cures and conspiracy theories have been bandied about, stories about how China and South Korea got it right and guidelines about what we MUST do to “break the chain” and “flatten the curve”. Many keyboard warriors (from the comfort of their homes) have taken it upon themselves to force people to stay indoors and ridicule those who don’t. Our politicians have not left any stone unturned to play their games, giving plenty of fodder for social media enthusiasts to populate their posts with. You also have your fair share of memes and time pass videos with challenges and dares on Facebook. WhatsApp too has really stepped up during this crisis and has become the go-to forum for everything to do with the virus. The fact that the most affordable data packages offered by the telecom providers only include Facebook and WhatsApp means that these apps have been the tools through which most information (correct and incorrect) has been disseminated.
Then you have the commercial minded who always see an opportunity during a crisis. Suddenly on social media we have a new playbook about “What brands should or should not do during the crisis”, “Ten tips to work from home” and “Five marketing lessons learnt from the pandemic” and workshops popping up on LinkedIn. Research agencies (which take a minimum of 12 to 16 weeks to turnaround the results from any commissioned project) suddenly have overnight reports on how consumers are behaving, how their habits are changing and what brands should be talking about. Then there are the do-gooders who use social media to ask people to contribute as much as they can. Even the government is using Facebook to connect donors to charity providers for the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program.
What we are experiencing on social media is no different to what we experienced at other times of heightened interest (for example the 2013 and 2018 general elections in Pakistan); the difference is that this time the entire world is involved in an existential threat that is not going away anytime soon. Even during the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks, we did not witness so much hysteria on a global level. Social media has definitely played a role in spreading awareness about the pandemic and the practices we need to follow to stay safe. It has also helped make popular slogans such as #staysafestayhome or #flattenthecurve (if you follow them, you instantly get a gate pass to “cool”).
It has given our heroic doctors, nurses and health workers a medium to make their personal pleas and share real stories compared to what you may or may not see on traditional media. However, as the Prime Minister said “the lockdown will not work if only people in Defence or in Islamabad stay at home”. Therefore, given the fact that a big chunk of the population is still offline and relies on TV for news updates, a coordinated campaign is needed across all TV channels AND social media. We need leadership that provides clarity in terms of news, honesty in terms of the reality of the situation and hope in terms of a coherent policy for the way forward. To achieve this, a mix of traditional and social media is required, rather than allowing the 36 million people on Facebook in Pakistan an open playing field. Social media needs to be used much more responsibly and as an addition to traditional media.
Sheikh Adil Hussain is GM Marketing, Shan Foods. firstname.lastname@example.org