In another example of the shifting media landscape, the UK Government has this week announced a new initiative which will see it work with YouTubers and other social media influencers to help spread accurate information about the COVID-19 outbreak, and counter harmful misinformation being shared online.
As reported by Business Insider:
"The UK's Department for International Development (DFID) will hand £500,000 ($US630,000) in funding to the H2H Network, which previously fought misinformation during the Ebola outbreak. Some of that funding will go to influencers charged with handing out accurate information and pointing younger viewers in Southeast Asia and Africa to official public health advice."
Some of the social media influencers being engaged as part of the program are:
- Bianca Gonzalez, a health expert and YouTube vlogger from the Philippines with over 7 million followers on Twitter @iamsuperbianca
- Dr Jahangir Kabir, a Bangladeshi health expert and popular TV presenter with over 1 million Facebook followers @DrJahangirkabircmc
- @KlikDokter – An Indonesian health blog with over 4 million Facebook followers
The UK Government says that the aim of the program is to help spread accurate health information "and to reach younger online audiences that are more susceptible to fake news".
A range of hoax theories around COVID-19 are circulating online, including false cures and preventative measures like drinking chlorine or bleach, eating garlic, gargling saltwater, and/or spreading cow dung or mustard paste. In addition to this, some hoaxers have taken to imitating official health channels with their fake information. In Tanzania, WhatsApp messages claiming to be from the regional health ministry have advised citizens that "drinking warm water every few minutes will prevent infection". There have also been false reports that the virus was created or spread deliberately, which have led to attacks on Chinese nationals across South East Asia, as well as in the UK.
It makes sense for the UK Government to enlist the help of social media influencers in this push - though it does, once again, underline the rising influence of social media and online identities in the modern media landscape.
Indeed, last year Lego conducted a survey of 3,000 children aged between 8 and 12 from the US, UK and China, and found that kids are now 3x more likely to aspire towards a career as a YouTuber rather than an astronaut, the traditional kids choice of the past.
It's increasingly clear that YouTubers, in particular, are now major celebrities in their own right, and with younger audiences growing up with YouTube as a constant entertainment option, they don't see online celebrities as any different from more traditionally recognized big names, like TV and films stars or musicians.
Given this, it makes sense that more initiatives and organizations would be looking to use online influencers as spokespeople and partners on their messaging. It's a logical step for reach and relevance, which is also an important consideration for all outreach programs, of all kinds, moving forward.