COVID COMMS #37 Recruiting an army of local social sharers to drown out the false news

Bravo, Birmingham, they’ve just done something I’ve been waiting for months to see in the fight against COVID-19 misinformation.

Director of Public Health Justin Varney has asked for volunteers to help like and share the city’s public health content online.


Data shows the size of the problem. False news on Twitter is 70 per cent more likely to spread, 63 per cent of UK people are concerned about false news with Ofcom data showing 40 per cent of people in the UK are finding it hard to know what was true or false.

There’s a stack of data that shows the size of the problem but little practical advice about what can be done especially locally.

An effective vaccine is the route out of the pandemic but disinformation can convince people not to have the jab, as Scotland’s chief medical officer Gregor Smith has said.

You may have seen the rumours. 5G is behind COVID-19, vaccines use pork so Muslims can’t use ikt or beef so Hindus can’t. Or they have microchips so Bill Gates can control your brain. All false.

Some of the bad spreaders are villains and anti-vaxxers who deny basic science. Some of them have got the wrong end of the stick.

But who can fight this war?

It’s not the task of an over-stretched and over-worked comms team to fight the false news tsunami on their own. They can help create the content but I’ve long argued the five million Britons who volunteered to help in the pandemic have a massive role to play in this.

Asking those volunteers – and staff – to like and share something feels like a pretty basic ask. It spreads the message but it also helps Facebook’s algorithm to have a load of people jumping on the post quickly.

For the volunteer army of social sharers idea to work work it needs to be them liking local content in their local area so the content spreads to local networks.

All this makes Birmingham City Council’s idea of recruiting Brummies to help them share content such an on-the-money idea.

How might that work on Facebook?

The Birmingham Live piece which reports the idea doesn’t go into detail but it would be pretty easy. Build an email list via a web form or something like Google Forms. Explain how you’ll use the data to send them links by email that they can like and share.

How might that work on WhatsApp?

Just as with email, build a list via a web form or something like Google Forms. Then message a video or a slab of text to send people with a clear call to action to share it to their own WhatsApp networks.

If you’re really clever you can collect some more detailed data on ethnic diversity. Why? Because WhatsApp has been reported as a prime place where misinformartion and disnformation spreads amongst communities.

You’ll need WhatsApp for Business to do this corporately. This app is the same as ordinary WhatsApp but allows you to build broadcast messages where people won’t be able to see others’ names and contact details. So, its GDPR-friendly.

So, a WhatsApp message with a video to the Muslim community with a Muslim doctor from Birmingham saying that rumours that the vaccines use pork elements will land better than the public health official who may not be Muslim.

What about taking on anti-vaxxers directly?

There’s a clear case that ordinary Facebook groups can be fighting grounds and I’ve blogged before about how the Facebook pages’ comments of newspapers – particularly Reach news titles – can be fettid swamps where anti-vaxx comments go unchallenged.

I don’t think its the job of public health social volunteers to take on these debates. Just liking and sharing is contribution enough.

Bravo Birmingham.

You can do the same.

Picture credit: istock

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  1. Part of the code of conduct for this role states:

    “by signing up as a COVID-19 Community Champion, you are agreeing to the code of conduct, which requires that:

    •Any information or advice you circulate comes from the council, NHS, Public Health England or the government.

    •You do not make political statements in respect of the Coronavirus arrangements.

    •You do not debate the merits of the guidance or criticise the government, council or partners…

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