Covid-19 and the rise of digital first responders in the South Pacific

Social media is a factor, for better or worse, in dealing with any crisis today. Facebook’s crisis-response hub, for example, relaunched in 2017, has become an important information medium for disaster-struck populations. Unfortunately, social media platforms can also spread rumour and misinformation with equal speed. And there is no bigger crisis in the Pacific today than the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Pacific region began preparing for Covid-19 as early as January 2020. However, the threat became a reality when Fiji reported its first case on 19 March.

Social media mobilised quickly to fill a need for rapid information, but it hasn’t always provided reliable health advice. This remains an ongoing challenge, despite efforts by Pacific governments, the United Nations and the platforms themselves to tackle the problem. However, NGOs have also used social media to help communities with the severe economic impacts of both the virus and government countermeasures.

As fear of Covid-19 spread rapidly and movement restrictions were imposed, social media became a frontline tool for governments and health agencies in disseminating public health messages and educating the public about the virus. Health organisations, NGOs and governments used social media channels to provide Covid-19 updates and information on healthcare, prevention methods and separating facts from myths. Social media’s vital role was evident when regional messaging developed by the World Health Organization was used to support governments’ efforts across the region.

But its use also generated privacy concerns. In Fiji, the names of individuals who came in contact with a positive case were circulated in a bid to locate them for quarantine. The names were shared with more than 3,000 people, which raised legal concerns about privacy. In another case, social media were used to share leaked private documents revealing details of Fiji’s sixth and seventh cases and information identifying their child, a minor.

Pacific governments are also very aware that social media can be a double-edged information tool and have tried to ensure that credible information is transmitted on social networks so as not to cause panic. However, Dr Colin Tukuitonga, who leads a government Pacific health advisory group for the Covid-19 response, has said that an overabundance of misinformation still posed a problem for Pacific communities. The Fijian Broadcasting Corporation reported that Fijians were turning back to traditional media to get verified facts and information, after reports of misleading information on social media and of Fijians being arrested and charged over ‘malicious’ social media comments about Covid 19 began to filter through to the public.

For individual governments, dealing with social media misinformation and disinformation can seem like an impossible task. To help the information clean-up, in May the UN Department of Global Communications launched a citizen-led initiative called ‘Verified’. The campaign called on people around the world, including the Pacific, to sign up to become ‘information volunteers’ or digital first responders to share trusted content to keep their communities safe and connected. To combat fake news, Facebook developed a Covid-19 Information Centre that aimed to help users with useful information and tips. Twitter also banned all ads that sought to take advantage of the pandemic. But it remains to be seen whether these measures will prove effective.

On a more positive note, social media, combined with NGO activity and mainstream media coverage, was helpful in providing economic relief to affected people. Two Fiji residents, Narayan Reddy and Allen Lockington, were moved by the daily newspaper and television news highlighting the plea for assistance from fellow Fijians who had lost their jobs. They started an online drive to help those affected, delivering over $15,000 worth of groceries to people in need.

This led to several charity pages on Facebook, perhaps the most effective of which is ‘Barter for Better Fiji’, or BFBF. Its creator, Marlene Dutta, says the primary reason for the page was to offer solutions to the current economic situation. The page has more than 180,000 members and has had numerous successful barter trades. BFBF has received international recognition with features on BBC World News and Radio New Zealand International and in The Guardian.

BFBF has inspired spin-offs that have driven a resurgence of the barter system in the region. Similar Facebook pages were set up in Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Samoa and even New Zealand. Having a strict no-cash-for-trade policy, these pages have over 100,000 members each. However, not all trades are successful and some publicly posted agreements fall through. A few fake pages have been formed under the BFBF name, which has prompted the team running the page to get feedback on all trades.

In response to the success of these pages, the UN has stepped in with financial assistance. In May, the UN Development Programme awarded nine grants under its COVID-19 Pacific Response: Sustainable Livelihoods Challenge in Fiji and Vanuatu. Six NGOs in Fiji, including BFBF, and four in Vanuatu were awarded grants.

Social media has been an important tool during the pandemic for governments and citizens to reinforce community solidarity. But now there’s clearly a need for policymakers and legislators to delve deeper into the undeniable need to monitor these platforms in times of crisis to ensure dissemination of officially verified information and limit disinformation, while at the same time finding a balance between being too reassuring and causing undue public panic. As these issues play out, it’s clear that one of the transformational effects of the pandemic will be the increasingly central role of social media in future regional crises.

This post is part of an ASPI research project on the vulnerability of Indo-Pacific island states in the age of Covid-19 being undertaken with the support of the Embassy of Japan in Australia.