The novel coronavirus and misinformation fears in PH social media

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Consider Social Media

This term, one of our modules focuses on relationship management in the social media age. Part of the class requirements has been to post interesting cases or examples we come across on social media, and this has sparked some great discussions in the class forums.

One of the more recent posts was about Starbucks’ effective use of social media to cultivate trust in its customers amidst the panic over the novel coronavirus. My classmate asked for other examples of brands using social media to address the crisis, but I decided to talk about the intersection of social media, politics, and the coronavirus outbreak instead.

Here’s what I posted on the class discussion board:

This isn’t about a corporate brand, but the furor on Philippine social media about how the government is handling the novel coronavirus adds an interesting dimension to the discussion of social media use in crises like this.

To give a bit of background, social media has increasingly become the dominant venue for casual political discussions/commentary in the Philippines. Various mobile networks offer free data access to Facebook and Twitter, for example, which has made these convenient channels for citizens who have something to say about current events.

Recently, for example, the hashtag #OustDuterte trended on Twitter as citizens’ frustrations over the government’s perceived lack of response to the virus boiled over. One sore point for many of these people was the government’s initial refusal to impose travel restrictions, especially for those with recent travel history to/from China.

Since the hashtag trended, many “sympathetic stories regarding Chinese nationals” (as the Philippine Star, one of the country’s major broadsheets, puts it) have gone viral. What’s interesting is that many have pointed out eerie similarities among these stories, even if they were ostensibly posted by different accounts.

This has led to speculation that the government, or at least groups sympathetic to the current administration, has deployed “troll farms” to try and combat public sentiment regarding the government’s handling of the coronavirus issue, particularly the question of travel restrictions.

It’s unlikely that there will ever be any kind of definitive confirmation or debunking of these theories. It’s worth noting, though, that the use of social media trolls to shape Philippine political discourse is well-documented. Here’s a sampling of reports from the past few years:

Whatever the reality of the current situation on Philippine social media, it says a lot that such speculation even arose in the first place.

Social media can give brands or institutions a powerful channel to directly reach out to stakeholders, but for good or ill, it also presents opportunities to indirectly influence (perhaps even manipulate) stakeholders’ sentiments or perceptions.

In some instances, this can be a good thing: brands or institutions can have a ready proxy to push out “unbranded” messages that need to feel more personal or immediate, for example. But this option can be used in bad faith as well, and people’s growing recognition of this possibility means social media messages can spark distrust just as quickly, depending on the context.

As a side note, “Architects of Networked Disinformation,” a British Council-funded report mentioned in one of the articles above, raises another interesting point: a lot of misinformation sources try to target mainstream media to amplify their false content.

According to report, they do so by taking advantage of many media outlets’ increasing propensity to report topics that go viral on social media. This suggests another way to look at social media, i.e., as a means to gain exposure on more “credible” or “mainstream” channels, rather than as an end-platform in itself.

The study focused on the Philippine context, and from personal experience, I can attest to the fact that even broadsheets and leading news broadcasts now allot more and more space to whatever’s “trending” on social media.

Is this the case for everyone else’s home countries as well?

Has anyone else seen examples of groups or brands using social media to win more mainstream coverage?