For many Singaporeans, the Wuhan respiratory virus seemed like a distant concern as they headed back to work and school in early January. News of the outbreak in central China likely crossed their Facebook news feed through the subsequent weeks, but few bothered to share or further interact with those posts.
That changed dramatically on January 23 because of two major developments. The first was the early morning announcement by the Chinese authorities that Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, would be locked down with all public transport suspended.
The second breaking news development came around 9pm that same day, this time with the Singapore authorities announcing the city-state’s first confirmed case of the Wuhan coronavirus.
These two developments, together with news of the worsening outbreak in China and elsewhere around the world, sparked a spectacular surge in social media interaction — which has become a flawed but useful barometer of public attitudes in Singapore given the paucity of opinion polls.
For instance, CNA’s FB post on the first confirmed case was shared more than 25,700 times — a clear indication of the heightened concern among Singaporeans.
Public concern, it would seem, rose even higher on January 28 as total interactions with Wuhan coronavirus-related FB posts surpassed the level seen on January 23.
This second surge was again driven by breaking news developments: The number of confirmed Wuhan coronavirus cases in Singapore rose to seven, and the authorities announced tougher counter-measures, including a decision to bar those who have travelled to Hubei in the last 14 days from entering or transiting through the city-state.
This post will take a closer look at various aspects of how Singaporeans have reacted to FB posts about the outbreak.
1. DATA, CAVEATS AND DEFINITIONS
Data used for the charts in this post comprise 1,156 FB posts collected between January 1 and noon of January 29 from the public pages of seven Singapore media outlets. They are: CNA, The Straits Times, TODAY, Mothership.sg, Lianhe Zaobao, Lianhe Wanbao and Shin Min Daily News. About 60% of the FB posts are in English, while the rest are in Chinese.
While not exhaustive, these seven outlets reach a sufficiently wide range of active FB users in Singapore.
- This post only examines FB posts related to the Wuhan coronavirus, as posted by the public pages of the seven media outlets. Data for content posted on personal FB accounts are not publicly available (at least not legally).
- A considerable proportion of the FB followers of these seven media outlets are non-Singaporeans. For instance, CNA has large numbers of FB followers from Myanmar and Malaysia. But there is no way, publicly at least, to separate FB interactions originating in Singapore from those overseas.
- Data from other social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn were not included as FB is the dominant platform, by far, for Singaporeans when it comes to news consumption.
- “Total Interaction” on Facebook is defined as the sum of “Likes”, “Shares”, “Comments” and the six emotions that users can choose to express themselves: “Love”, “Wow”, “Haha”, “Sad”, “Angry”, or “Thankful”.
- To keep things simple, no weight was assigned to each form of user interaction. This means a share or comment on a Wuhan coronavirus breaking news story is counted no differently from a “Like” reaction. But in reality, sharing and commenting are seen as more important forms of social media behaviour as they reflect a higher level of involvement on the part of the users.
You can download a copy of the summary FB interaction data here.
2. ALL’S QUIET, THEN A SURGE
On January 19, the seven media outlets posted just six FB posts on the Wuhan coronavirus. These six posts had a combined total of just 4,979 interactions.
But on January 28, the current peak for total interactions on FB, the seven outlets posted 168 Wuhan coronavirus-related FB posts, 24 times more content (articles, photos, or videos) than they did on January 19. The total interaction for all the January 28 posts came up to 240,835, a near 50-fold jump from January 19.
While dramatic, this burst in activity, as captured in the animated line chart above, is typical of social media where user engagement can grow exponentially, particularly when there is major breaking news.
Such trends are self-reinforcing in that a surge in user interaction typically prompts media outlets to post more related content, thereby generating even more user interaction. But user interest will drop at some point, and at an exponential rate as well. This breaks the so-called “viral cycle”, though it is hard to predict when exactly that would happen for an event.
3. ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT, DOMINATED BY SHARING OF CONTENT
As I’ve noted above, not all forms of social media engagements are equal, with sharing and commenting seen as “higher” forms of engagement.
What’s striking about FB user behaviour during the “surge” period between January 20–28 is not just the volume of engagements (shown below by the grey columns representing the level of total interactions), but also the very active nature of the interactions.
A comparison of the total number of “Shares” (red line) and “Likes” (blue dotted line) per day in the chart below illustrates this clearly. “Likes”, a very popular but passive form of engagement on FB, consistently trailed behind “Shares” for almost the entire period (data for January 29 is incomplete in this case).
It’s not hard to guess why sharing is the dominant form of behaviour on FB with regards to Wuhan coronavirus-related content. Given the concerns about community spread, many worried Singaporeans are likely sharing related content with an eye to informing their family and friends about the latest preventive measures, or the state of the confirmed cases in Singapore.
The number of comments left on the FB posts related to the outbreak also saw a similar spike, albeit on a smaller scale, as the chart below shows.
To date, the most commented FB post related to the Wuhan coronavirus is the one by Mothership.sg below, discussing an online petition to temporarily ban mainland Chinese travellers from entering the country. The post has drawn over 1,800 comments.
Another hotly commented post on Jan 28, when the total number of FB comments per day peaked, involved the move by the Government to give a S$100 daily allowance for Singaporeans and PRs being quarantined. While some supported the move, others questioned the rationale for the payment.
4. MIXED BAG OF EMOTIONS
It’s famously tricky to try to discern the authenticity, much less depth, of so-called emotional responses on social media. FB users can nominally choose to express their moods more clearly using six “emotion” buttons representing “Sad”, “Angry”, “Wow”, “Thankful”, “Haha” and “Love”.
While the buttons for sorrow and anger are easy enough to understand, it is far harder to discern what a user might mean by “Haha” or “Love” or “Thankful” in the context of the Wuhan virus outbreak. So I focused only on the three emotions of “Sad”, “Angry” and “Wow” for the animated line chart below:
It’s not surprising that more FB users reached for the “Sad” button, given the scale and human cost of the outbreak. For instance, many users sympathized with the 62-year-old Chinese doctor who contracted the Wuhan virus while he was fighting to contain the outbreak in a Hubei hospital, and later died from the deadly respiratory disease.
Over 5,000 users pressed the “Sad” button after seeing CNA’s FB post on the doctor’s plight:
Elsewhere, FB users here expressed anger at the operation of wildlife markets in China (the Wuhan coronavirus is said to have spread to people from wild animals at one such market), and at Chinese nationals who tried to escape the quarantine orders placed on them. But the level of fury appears to be relatively mild, compared to how mainland Chinese nationals have been criticising their own local and national leaders for bungling the response.
Will this change as the outbreak wears on and Singaporeans get frustrated with their own government’s response? That’s hard to say for now, given the fickleness of online sentiment and the uncertain outlook for the outbreak’s trajectory.
5. THE ‘OTHER’ OUTBREAK: MANAGING VIRALITY IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
When Sars, which is similar to the Wuhan coronavirus, first sparked global panic in 2003, Facebook was just a cheeky “hot-or-not” game dreamt up by Mark Zuckerberg while he was at Harvard. Twitter would not be created until three years later.
While rumours about the Sars virus circulated widely via emails, SMSes, online chat rooms and bulletin boards, there wasn’t a user platform that could easily spread disinformation to a global audience.
Fast forward to the Wuhan coronavirus crisis in 2020, and policymakers have to fight two viral outbreaks at the same time — one on the medical front and the other on social media. While platforms like Facebook allow the public to access and share factual information more quickly than ever, these global channels have also been “weaponised” by bad actors who are out to spread disinformation for their own gains.
A study of Wuhan coronavirus-related online rumours and false information being spread in Singapore is obviously outside the scope of this post, which focuses only on FB posts by mainstream media outlets. But as we’ve seen in the 2016 US election and elsewhere, disinformation travels faster than factual announcements on social media.
The Singapore Government is taking no chances on the public information front, and has been actively using multiple channels, such as FB and WhatsApp, to debunk online rumours and false reports. The use of WhatsApp is particularly significant, given the messaging app’s near-universal adoption among Singaporeans, particularly those who are older or not on social media.
Public concern over the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak will only grow in the coming days and weeks as new developments emerge. At the time of writing, the World Health Organisation had reversed its earlier decision and decided to declare the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a global public health emergency.
Meanwhile, the Singapore Government and airlines can expect to come under additional public pressure to adopt new and more drastic measures taken by other countries to try to contain the outbreak, such as Italy’s move to shut all air traffic with China.
In short, policymakers dealing with the Wuhan coronavirus — and future epidemics — have to contain two outbreaks at the same time, one being waged in hospitals and the other via keyboards.
6. BONUS SECTION: WHICH MEDIA OUTLETS HAVE DOMINATED COVERAGE OF THE OUTBREAK THUS FAR?
The short answer: CNA. The state broadcaster has turned itself into an online powerhouse in recent years, and is particularly strong on Facebook where it has 3 million followers.
The point to note upfront before we go into the charts is that social media is not a level-playing field for media outlets these days. While speed and well-written posts still matter, social media performance can be improved significantly if an outlet pays to boost its content.
I don’t know if any of the posts in this analysis have been boosted. There is no easy way for outsiders to tell whether a particular post from a media outlet has been boosted, and to what extent. But do bear this in mind as we go through the charts below.
6.1 BREAKDOWN BY POSTS PER DAY AND CONTENT TYPE
The total number of Wuhan coronavirus-related FB posts by the seven media outlets reached a high of 168 on Jan 28, from a handful at the start of the year. Almost 90% of the content posted on FB by these outlets were article links to stories on their websites. Videos haven’t been posted in large numbers, though I expect this to change in the coming weeks.
6.2 BREAKDOWN BY CUMULATIVE SUM OF FB INTERACTIONS
As mentioned earlier, CNA is crushing it. It has more than twice the number of FB followers than its nearest competitor, The Straits Times, and the results show:
On FB, the English-language media outlets in Singapore are far ahead of their Chinese, Malay or Tamil-language counterparts in terms of reach and audience size. Zaobao in fact posted the most number of posts on FB with regards to the Wuhan Coronavirus outbreak — 258 posts versus 243 by CNA and 211 by ST.
But as the chart above shows, posting in large numbers don’t necessarily translate to higher engagement.
6.3 BREAKDOWN BY CUMULATIVE SUM OF FB SHARES
For my money, I would rank “Shares” as the most important metric in assessing how the various media outlets have performed on FB, as this particular user behaviour has the biggest bearing on readership traffic.
And again, we see CNA dominating the field by a country mile. I don’t have access to the readership numbers on CNA’s site, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are ahead of ST on this front as well.
The other interesting thing to note from the last two charts is Mothership’s performance vis-a-vis the other legacy media outlets like TODAY and Zaobao.
The conventional thinking in media circles here is that in times of crisis, readers will gravitate towards mainstream media outlets for serious news and give irreverent news sites like Mothership a miss.
Historic news events tend to shake up the media landscape in a big way, and it looks like the current coronavirus outbreak could cement some of the changes which have been underway in recent years, particularly with regards to CNA’s ascendancy.