The coronavirus crisis (COVID-19), classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). It will undoubtedly be the object of study in the future, in multiple fields, including communication. Although it is early to draw firm conclusions, trends and patterns can be guessed and time will confirm. Certainly, the COVID-19 crisis has not caused the same impact on the world population as previous viral crises. There are several reasons for this. Learn Factor analyzes one of them, undoubtedly the continuous bombardment in the media and social networks.
Social networks have played an important role in all crises, fundamentally in two aspects: setting the media plan and amplifying the situation. The moment a conversation becomes hegemonic in the networks, they also can set the agenda in the media. In reality, there is a dialogue between the media and social networks, which feed into each other. What is said on one site is reproduced on the other.
Networks have the power to make people interact and participate in the conversation, so sometimes the content doesn’t just reproduce. It evolves. This dialogue between media and social networks inevitably contributes to amplifying the situation. This amplification becomes two polarized reactions. It is difficult to find a middle ground in social networks in these situations: trivializing reality (this is a flu) or mass hysteria (sweeping supermarkets).
So we will take a chronological journey through different epidemics that the world has suffered, relating some data to better understand what is happening today. Between 2003 and 2006, the crisis of the so-called Avian Flu (H5N1) broke out. Those with better memories will remember the media impact it had. However, even though the epidemic took three years to control, the population did not spend three years knowing the ‘last hour’ of the epidemic. Bird Flu left 649 infected and 385 dead in 59 countries. But there was a key issue in the communication of that crisis: Twitter did not exist and only six million people lived on Facebook.
In 2009 we met another strain of the flu, H1N1, commonly known as Swine Flu. The crisis lasted until 2010, infecting 1 in 5 people in the world. The death figures were controversial because the WHO placed them at 18,500, but a study in The Lancet magazine estimated between 150,000 and 575,000 deaths. This is due to the difficulty that some countries had in counting the real deaths caused by the virus. In any case, the deaths were many more than in the previous crisis, and 64% of the victims were under 64 years old, according to the WHO. However, the activity on social networks and media was also not memorable. The reason could be in the youth of the first.
But in August 2014, the epidemic would arrive that would change the health crisis communication paradigm, the first in which social networks were an important part of it: the Ebola crisis. The virus outbreak began in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea Conakry, and the majority of those infected were in Africa, a permanently battered continent. However, the United States, Great Britain, and Spain had infected patients. Therefore, the western media paid special attention to an epidemic that left 28,602 infected and 11,301 dead, according to the WHO. That year, Facebook already had 1.23 billion users, and Twitter with 248 million.
The COVID-19 crisis will mark a before and after health communication, especially in the traditional and digital media field. With more than 207,000 infected, more than 8,600 deaths, and 166 countries affected as of March 19, 2020, the pandemic’s media coverage is unprecedented. In the first weeks, when the crisis broke out in China, the coverage was still moderate, as the conversation on social networks.
When the virus crossed borders, the information drip was unstoppable, and the conversation on social networks was constant. As these lines are being written, # Covid_19 are trending topics in the world. The difference in social networks? Today Facebook has more than 2,400 million users and Twitter with more than 340 million.
That is the trend that began to emerge some time ago and that now seems to be fully implemented: the ability of social networks to set the media plan. Will the media be able to protect itself from this epidemic?