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Killing a Covid Crisis

A doctor friend in the Philippines asked for my help dealing with a public health crisis. She heads a medical workers association that has been combating COVID-related issues. A retired doctor from a famous university gave an interview saying the COVID vaccine doesn't work on a popular fan page, this alarmed her. The interview had over 2.5 million views within 4 hours and trending, and the fan page that started had.75 million active followers. She asked for my help because we track and advise ASEAN governments to disinformation, especially during the past year. I used QSearch Trend, a BigData analytics platform to track and analyze social media. It is the primary tool we use to help our government and political clients to handle a social crisis.

The QSearch platform immediately mapped out the pattern of dissemination and its impact. The fan page's engagement made the interview a potential crisis. Each post gets an average of 63 shares, enough exposure to trick the Facebook recommendation engine and snowball. Eight hours into the interview, all indications point to it crossing over into traditional media. Once that occurs, it's impossible to reverse the avalanche.

The first action in any social crisis is to limit the momentum and reduce virality. I advised my friend we need to inform the fan page that they might be spreading content that is unlawful under the Philippines law. (The Philippines law punishes spreading false information that disturbs and endangers the public.) Second, ask elected officials to ask the government agencies to investigate this violation. While this did not immediately change other channels from sharing, the media did remove the content after 22 hours. When the original post disappeared removed, it made it very difficult for people to share and continue the spread of virality.

As the two remedies got underway, we work to revoke the former doctor's authority. A revocation attack is a very different strategy than ad hominem, and more effective. The association scheduled the current dean from the university that the doctor retired from. The dean stated the doctor's anti-vaccination view did not represent a medical consensus or the university's view. He further cited the WHO, other countries' successes, and encouraged people to take the vaccine because it's safe and effective.

Within 30 hours, following our advice, the virality has been stopped. With the infection slowed, it's time to clean up. Rather than attacking the doctor, the strategy became attacking the false information. Most PR agencies would consider the crisis averted and tell the client all is clear. While this works for a consumer-oriented crisis, it is only half the battle for ideologies. As I reminded my friend, "Never waste a good crisis."

With that, the association scheduled speakers on many media to educate the public, citing the doctor's anti-vax statement as a pressing situation. When they spoke, it was a coordinated message that urged vaccination, social distancing, and mask-wearing.

With virality contained in under 48 hours, we now ask those who shared the content to either take it down or post the association responses. An influencer who posts other people’s content rarely shy about posting opposing views, since it’s free content that will generate eyeball.

By Monday, the association had killed the potential viral explosion and the pro-vaccine message is better to spread in the Philippines. In Chinese writing, 'Danger' is a word with part of the word 'Opportunity' embedded. It requires data and discipline to extract opportunity from chaos, rather than to be its victim or make a crisis into a disaster.


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