UK-based Jonathan Bradley discusses why, in the current crisis, it is important that local councils and other public bodies keep engaging with residents online.
1. You are the voice of reason. People need a place where they can talk to each other safely.
According to organizations like MIND and the NHS, for people staying at home it might feel more difficult than usual for people to take care of their mental health and wellbeing (and this means most of us). Keeping in touch digitally is one way of coping, but not everyone wants to do this publicly on places like Facebook and Twitter. Also, not everyone has family and friends that they can contact. Or they may not want to! Creating safe online forums for people to talk to each other about how they are coping with COVID-19, or just trying to get by day-to-day, is an important thing that local authorities and partners can do to respond to the crisis. An additional benefit is that people on these forums are also likely to refer each other to local trusted response services they have used or steps they have taken to cope.
2. You are the custodian of truth. People need a place where they can ask you a question and know the answer is credible.
Many people and organizations like UK independent fact checking charity, Full Fact, are very concerned that there’s a lot of information out there about the new coronavirus, but not all of it is right. It’s important that people can find a place online where they can ask questions from credible sources about rumors they have heard, where they can find information and what’s going on locally. Online Question and Answer tools, hosted by local authority staff and/or trusted local partners can play a vital role in this local fact-checking.
“This false or misleading information can come in many forms: from viral posts on social media, to comments made by public figures, to statements printed or broadcast by journalists. It’s vital that everyone receives clear, factual information about COVID-19. Bad information ruins lives. In situations like this, it can cause unnecessary fear and—most importantly—may lead people to ignore important advice about symptoms or avoiding infection.” Full Fact (26 March 2020)
“The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared that there’s an “infodemic” of disinformation about coronavirus spreading rapidly around the world. We have all seen examples of this kind of content being shared in our friends and family networks on social media and through messaging apps. Examples include claims that drinking warm water every 15 minutes can stop you getting the virus, or that taking ibuprofen tablets accelerates the illness’s progress.” Wired (30 March 2020)
3. It’s good for people to share stories right now and you can be a safe place for them to share experiences.
Telling stories about our personal experiences of coping with COVID-19 could be an important way to cope with the current crisis. Storytelling can be helpful because:
- It reminds people about the resilience of the human spirit in difficult situations
- Listening to people’s stories about how they have dealt with crisis, the loss of a loved one and the tales of communities coming together can be strengthening for everyone
- Hearing about other people’s experiences can also help to improve our problem-solving skills and make us better equipped to deal with theirs
In the current climate, for many, social media might not be the best place for everyone to share their stories. By inviting local people to share their stories, in a safe environment, local authorities could provide a space for hope, they could help people to take solace in the experience of others, it could help people to appreciate their own circumstances more.
“In an ideal world, upsetting experiences are transformed into stories that are shared with others. This process helps us to understand the events and, at the same time, alerts our friends to our emotional and psychological state. Such storytelling ultimately helps us maintain a stable social and emotional life.” Telling Stories: The Health Benefits of Narrative, Johns Hopkins University Press 2000
4. Social media is even more scary than normal. You can create a safe haven for people to talk to each other.
Not surprisingly, COVID-19 is creating a lot of fear in local communities. This will not be helped by the posts they will be seeing on their social media and also in mainstream media where there may be a temptation to sensationalize some stories.
“It’s clear that Coronavirus is a once in a generation crisis. The level of panic runs far ahead of the actual penetration of the virus into the population. People have looked at China, Italy and Europe and gained a frightening view of the approaching disruption and sadness.” Coronavirus (COVID-19) Tracker, A first look at the impact of Coronavirus on the UK population (March 16 2020)
According to Coronavirus (COVID-19) Tracker, A first look at the impact of Coronavirus on the UK population March 16, 2020, 25% of the population are the most worried they have ever been.
“Once again, the agents of disinformation are hijacking the algorithms of social media to sow chaos and confusion. Some are doing so to make money, others more maliciously to undermine public trust in our governments and institutions. As the coronavirus lockdowns continue, and the infection rates continue to rise, these problems will only get worse. At a time when people need to be able to rely on accurate public information, this problem is more serious than ever.” Wired (30 MARCH 2020)
Local authorities and their partners should be using online engagement platforms to create places where people can get away from the alarmist nature of social media and instead can share stories of how their communities are coping, have their questions answered by trusted sources (e.g. The Council), share ideas for improving the situation, and talk to each other about what they are doing in their neighborhood during the crisis.
5. There’s lots of good stuff going on out there and you can map it and share it.
Many local communities have responded to the corona crisis by setting up local groups to fetch and carry for people who are at risk and are not able to go to the shops or fetch their meds. In my own village, I am part of a WhatsApp group of about 70 people making sure that all villagers are being looked after. We have split the village into small neighborhoods and taken responsibility for a small number of vulnerable people. Local businesses are providing food parcels and arranging deliveries. We can even get wine and beer delivered!
“A woman has designed a postcard aimed at helping people to look after their neighbors if they are self-isolating. The print-at-home template is being shared on social media, with those in need able to request shopping, urgent supplies or “a friendly phone call”. Becky Wass, from Falmouth, Cornwall, said the idea came to her as she and her husband discussed ways to help. “Because fear has spread so quickly, its really important to try to spread kindness,”” she said. BBC News (15 March 2020)
All of this good stuff will get lost, good ideas will not be shared, and all the hope it brings will dissipate if somebody doesn’t step in and make sure it is recorded, placed on an online map and shared across the local area. This is something that local authorities and their partners can set up online quite easily and ask local people to populate.
6. You are the source of reason, reassurance and common decency.
This speaks for itself.
“There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.” -Albert Camus, The Plague, 1947.
7. Listening to people’s anecdotes and metaphors is vital intelligence right now!
By listening to what people say in discussion forums, the stories they tell, the ideas they come up with and the initiatives they are involved in, local authorities will gather vital intelligence about the state of their local area. The anecdotes and metaphors people use will help local authorities to understand how their residents are feeling, how they are coping, where they are struggling and why. This analysis will provide local agencies with vital intelligence about how to respond to the needs of local people and communities, both now and after the immediate impact of the coronavirus crisis.
Five Things you can do right now
- Set up a fact-checker to bring together accurate and up to date information about the situation in your area and allow people to ask questions from trusted sources.
- Create a map to raise awareness of COVID-19 community initiatives in your local area and share where people have set up community action groups. You can ask people to add the details to your map so that you can signpost people needing help to the support on offer.
- Use stories to show how people are supporting others in their local community.
- Create an ideas board so that people can share their ideas about what could help their community to deal with the impact of COVID-19 and the related self-isolation and social distancing measures? Let people share their thoughts about what is needed in their community and what could be done about it.
- Analyze people’s anecdotes and metaphors to understand how your community is feeling. Use sentiment analysis to get an instant, day by day, picture of what’s good and what’s bad.
See how EngagementHQ is being used to provide information and engagement on COVID-19 around the world.