#20: Viruses And Virality

Social media as a 21st century air-raid siren


Today’s short post is about how, with the right approach, social media platforms could have a profoundly positive impact on the coronavirus pandemic.

Reading time: 2 minutes

“With the world on lockdown, tech platforms are now the social fabric"

Tristan Harris, Centre For Humane Technology

As the media persists with its hackneyed “we are at war” aphorism, Xi Jinping declares the “people’s war” and Trump reluctantly admits to “our big war”, we instantly know, they are all, of course, referring to the same thing - humanity’s fight against the coronavirus.

If this a war, we need a better method to warn people of approaching danger than fear.


In London during World War Two, an air raid siren alerted city dwellers to an impending attack. It’s purpose was to compel people to take shelter.

As the coronavirus moves at a faster rate than governments can match, and millions of people prove unable to adapt their behaviour quick enough to “flatten the curve”, we need a 21st century version of the air raid siren to compel them to stay home.

Social media platforms could be that “Emergency Broadcast System.” 

The highly targeted, individualised and persuasive methods these platforms use to shape behaviour, could instead be refocused to save lives.

While we should be wary about relying on private corporations that have caused major societal harms to navigate us through a pandemic, at the same time, the reach and data these platforms possess, make them best placed to have a profound and positive impact - if approached in the right way.

Here are a few examples of what they could do:


When Facebook created a button letting users tell their friends they had voted, they increased voter turnout in the 2010 US congressional elections by over 340,000 people.

Facebook could use its persuasive powers to let users display the fact they are staying home during the pandemic.

WhatsApp could do the same.


People can’t help but compare ourselves with others.

Using publicly available geolocation data, Unacast.com compares how well U.S. States practice “social distancing.” 

Social media platforms could do similar, showing us how well we're doing compared with others - be it as a family, community, city or country. Letting users compare their own habits with others, could serve as an incentive to do better.

Pandemic-footprint.com lets users compare their habits with others, using a checklist that can turn into a ratings score.

Social media platforms could follow suit, offering quizzes and challenges, with the best examples going viral.


Too many young people feel immune to the dangers posed by the coronavirus. 

Platforms such as Snapchat and TikTok, could reach blasé young users, by reframing the impact their behaviour poses to their grandparents rather than themselves.

In conclusion

Social media platforms are not neutral technologies.

They manipulate our attention and farm it for commercial gain. They are designed in a way that preys on our psychological vulnerabilities. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

With the right motivation, these platforms could use its vast persuasive powers to convince billions of people to engage in positive behaviour for the benefit of society rather than the technology.

These platforms are in a unique position now more than ever to earn the trust of the world’s population. They have the power to take strong and effective action, but most importantly, they have the responsibility too.

#BuildforCOVID19 is a competition for designers and developers to build digital solutions that tackle the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Stay Safe and hopeful!