As concerns over the coronavirus pandemic grow, Australians are banding together on social platforms to share resources and mitigate the challenges of self-isolation. Medical authorities are also leveraging the platforms to disseminate information more quickly and credibly than in the past.

Nextdoor, a social platform designed for neighbours in the physical world to connect online, reports its users are offering to support neighbours affected by coronavirus as well as coordinating volunteer efforts in response to COVID-19.

Posts on the Nextdoor platform. Supplied.

Users in NSW and Victoria, for example, are offering to share supplies, including toilet paper, following panic buying that left major supermarkets out of stock this week. 

Nextdoor is encouraging users to continue the goodwill and urging them to “digitally check in” on neighbours. It also rushed out a new tool last weekend, allowing users to edit and share a pre-populated post with the ways they can help nearby neighbours.

Posts on the Nextdoor platform. Supplied.

During the week, Nextdoor offered the same feature offline by providing a similar notice as a printable flyer which could be shared with neighbours who may not be online.

Nextdoor’s Australia country manager, Jennie Sager, says the response online to the pandemic has been overwhelming.

“It’s really great because I think when you’re in a time like this you want those positive and kind stories and nobody wants to just fall down that endless media hole of negativity,” Sager told Which-50.

“So to have a platform where you can be reminded that people are good at heart and it’s not just all bad out there is really great.”

Nextdoor country manager, Jennie Sager. Image: nextdoor.com

Sager says the platform is relatively free from the disinformation and toxicity problems plaguing the bigger social media platforms, which are often at their worst in times of crisis, largely because Nextdoor users are verified as real people living in close proximity.

“Our key differences are real names and real addresses, so we do go through that verification process to make sure that they are real people who definitely live in your neighbourhood. And that is completely different to something like Facebook Groups because there is no verification process.

“You could be talking to a bot or to somebody who lives in a different country. And that’s a really wide net, whereas Nextdoor is all about hyper locality … We connect people purely on proximity, not their preference.”

Sager says Nextdoor is a “neighbourhood hub” rather than a networking platform and it wants to “nudge” users into more real life interactions, rather than maximise online engagement like most social media companies. Users appear to be warming to the platform, which now runs in 11 countries.

Platforming

COVID-19 marks another test for the digital platform giants, Facebook and Twitter, which in the past have failed to stem disinformation campaigns exploiting crisis moments.

The platforms are improving, according to Michelle Gallaher, CEO of Australian data analytics company Opyl, who says health authorities can effectively leverage them at a global scale.

“Because roughly half the world’s population is active on social media, we have to consider, particularly the big ones … as the primary media tools,” Gallaher told Which-50.

“[They are] the place that people go to to find information on a global scale is social media.”

Michelle Gallaher, CEO of Opyl. Supplied.

According to Gallaher, as more people have joined the platforms, including the health and science authorities relevant to COVID-19, the level of content has improved. 

One of Opyl’s goals is to promote health authorities on social media. The company applies artificial intelligence to social media to generate insights for governments and medical groups.

Gallaher says without the traditional authorities disseminating information online, the “lunatic fringe fill the void”. And for a long time that fringe was overrepresented on platforms, as authorities and institutions were slow to come online. Now, she says, the balance and the discourse is improving.

“We now see a lot of really great doctors, really great nurses, fantastic people that are in medical research and also policy around health. These people it’s not just their organisations but it’s them personally on social media.”

“So now when we tune into social media we have far more quality choices to listen to than the typical voices we see on social media.”

Gallaher says a healthy dose of skepticism is still needed and users should be turning to official, verified medical authorities for COVID-19 updates as well as balancing their news with other traditional sources. But the platforms are increasingly removing content that has no evidence to support it, according to Gallaher.

“I think we’ll probably see a lot more engagement from the platforms through this health issue than maybe what we expected.”

COVID-19 also presents an opportunity for the platforms to improve their algorithms in a way so as to favour authoritative health information in feeds, Gallaher says.

“Because we’ve got artificial intelligence now – and this is the way the algorithm of something like Facebook works and Instagram works – the platforms have the opportunity to train the algorithm to ensure that quality information from credible authoritative sources come up first in a search.

“And this is exactly what we’re saying now. So we’re seeing a very clever and very, I think, very ethical use of artificial intelligence.”

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