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As the coronavirus is making its rounds, more people decide to stay home leading many of them towards online news media for updates, more information, and even entertainment. Image Credit: Pixabay

As the COVID-19 crisis dominates the international, regional and local news agenda, a clear trend is emerging in terms of the information consumption habits of consumers.

In mid-January, when the virus first started making headlines as Beijing was introducing lockdown measures in the infected regions, “China Daily”, the biggest English language newspaper focusing on China, had an Alexa ranking of 534 in global internet traffic and engagement metrics. In the two months since, its performance improved significantly, making a jump of no less than 157 positions, and went on to occupy number 376 in Alexa’s global list.

Some 90 days ago, the website of the World Health Organisation www.who.int was listed No. 1,125 in global traffic rankings; however it now ranks No. 373. On February 20, Italy’s “Corriere.it” was the world’s 1,381 most favourite website, but by March 16, it had jumped no less than 293 places globally, ranking as Italy’s 12th most popular site.

Mainstream is back in the picture

As the virus is making its rounds, more people decide to stay home leading many of them towards online news media for updates, more information, and even entertainment. And that’s good news for the mainstream media industry.

Could this global health scare crisis become the remedy for the ailing news industry? Could the virus help combat the plague of fake news propagated and spread by the viral power of social media? And help take the masks off the faces of an increasing number of irresponsible influencers, who take advantage of their newly minted fame to stir things up, and sensationalise for the sake of some engagement rates and new followers?

Take the “High School Musical” film star Vanessa Hudgens. A US-based influencer who turned to her Instagram live “story” and broadcast her thoughts on the coronavirus to her 38.4 million followers. This is what she had to say about the virus crisis: “I’m sorry, but like, it’s a virus, I get it, I respect it. But at the same time, like, even if everybody gets it, like, yeah, people are gonna die.

“Which is terrible, but like inevitable? I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this right now.’

Immediate fallout

Indeed Vanessa, maybe you shouldn’t have. Still, all you had to do was delete it, but you didn’t. Instead you published 47 words of utter ignorance, defiance and selfishness delivered to an audience of predominantly young and impressionable fans who are likely to get influenced by what you had to say about the subject.

Influencers as powerful and privileged as Hudgens, with the ability to switch on her smartphone and address tens of millions of people at the same time, should be accountable for their words and actions. And the potential damage, misinformation and dangerous reactions these may lead to.

They should be liable to pay the price the same way a traditional newspaper or radio station should if it were out spreading fake news, or commenting in ways that prove to the detriment of those consuming their content.

Regain faith

It is about time companies realised that linking their reputations with influencers and brand ambassadors may help them get some temporary benefits, but that their reputation may suffer in the long term. Finding positives amid adverse times is an oxymoron ... yet I can’t help but think that this could be a great opportunity for traditional media to gain back the trust of a vast majority of people who had either lost faith in them or were lured by the bright screens of their mobile gadgets and the colourful logos of the social media channels.

By continuing their professional reporting that keeps people updated and factually informed on what has been described as the biggest global crisis in generations, trust in traditional journalism will be revived. Because at some point, the virus will go — but the habit of picking up the copy of your favourite newspaper may return ... and stay on.

— George Kotsolios is Managing Partner at Leidar MENA and author of “Back to the Future of Marketing — PRovolve or Perish”. Follow him on Twitter @georgekotsolios.