Foot and Mouth Disease 2001 vs. COVID-19

25 August 2020
  • Does social media make a difference to how we learn?

    The World Before Social Media

    The 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease Outbreak (FMD-01) happened when the use of the internet was limited, and the term ‘social media’ was unheard of. Facebook didn’t appear until 2004 and Twitter in 2006. COVID-19 on the other hand has been very much a ‘social media pandemic’. For many people it is their primary (if not only) method of understanding what is going on.


    This post is a personal reflection on some of what I experienced during FMD-01, how things are different during COVID-19, and how they could be better. Specifically, the impact of social media on how we learn and listen.


    Operational life during FMD-01

    During FMD-01 I was working in an operational role for Environment Agency Wales. The organisation responsible for the protection of natural resources in Wales; land, air and water quality. I’d been doing this sort of thing for a while and was reasonably comfortable with environmental regulation and improvement.


    But difficult times, and a crisis like FMD-01 leaves a mark. I’d grown up in a semi-rural area, spent my youth helping on farms, so I thought I knew a bit about farming life. Well, nothing prepares you for the pain, anger and despair I’d experience in the ‘call centre’ conversations with the farming community. People who had witnessed their entire flocks of sheep and herds of cattle slaughtered as ‘precautionary measures’.


    The slaughter accounted for 6 million cattle and sheep across the UK. To prevent the ongoing spread of the FMD-01 virus we have to do something with those carcasses, in a way that doesn’t degrade the environment. Scenes from the mass cremation and burial pits on the Army Ranges at Mynydd Epynt is something I’ll never forget – as much as I’d like to. This was the brutal ‘eradication of the virus’ on an industrial scale.


    Communication in a crisis

    My FMD-01 experiences happened before the widespread use of the internet and social media. Compare that to what we experience now, with social media saturation coverage of COVID-19. Reflecting on the two situations I think the presence of social media has had a significant impact in two board areas;

    • How you find out about what’s going on (sharing information), and
    • Understanding the impact of the situation on the lives of people (how people get their voices heard).


    Telling people what they need to know

    During FMD-01 the process of sharing information was relatively straightforward. There were roughly four methods:

    1.       Official Channels

    What the Government (national and local) told you,

    2.       Mainstream Press and Media

    What you read in newspapers or listened to / looked at on the radio or television. This was quite close to what came from ‘official’ channels.

    3.       Organisational Cascades

    Working for Environment Agency Wales I was on the receiving end of the science, evidence and facts necessary to do my job (this might differ from 1 and 2 above).

    4.       The Grapevine

    What people talk about with their family, friends and people they meet in the post office or pub.


    Pause for a moment and compare FMD-01 with the social media saturation of COVID-19.


    A quick look at the internet will surface literally 1000’s of viewpoints on COVID-19. People are screaming for attention. This ranges from official government channels and Professors of Epidemiology through to fake news, conspiracy theorist and cranks.  But who do you trust?


    Can you trust social media in a crisis? 

    In 2015 I wrote an article about the subject and highlighted something called ‘Troll Farms’. One of the points I made was the need for critical thinking – to work out who you can trust.


    What I said in 2015 is still relevant in COVID-19, just the sources of information have changed. On a positive note, there are people I trust, and some of the interesting and ‘go to’ examples that I’ve encountered are:


    • @PaulMatthews67. Paul is the Chief Executive of Monmouthshire Council and tweets daily on the COVID-19 things that matter to the people of Monmouthshire. Paul’s factual and direct approach engages me as a fellow human being. I like that.
    • @LloydCymru. Lloyd is a 16-year-old from Ceredigion who shares ‘easy to understand’ statistics about COVID-19 in Wales. With over 13,000 followers Lloyd is an influencer, I imagine the envy of many Epidemiologists.
    • @AuditWales and @AuditWales_GPX. In my own world we are sharing the learning we have gathered around what public services are doing to respond to COVID-19


    Having your ‘go to’ sources of information (delivered in 280-character tweets) by a 16-year-old and a Local Council Chief Executive was unimaginable during FMD-10. In COVID-19 it’s here and it’s real. So, amongst the social media saturation, the trick is to work out, who do you trust?


    Keeping your ear to the ground

    Listening to what service users and citizens are experiencing is a key part of what public services do.


    The amount of material people share about their COVID-19 experiences on social media can be a bit overwhelming. There are ‘Covid Stories’ (songs, videos and interpretations through the medium of dance) from just about every corner of society, on every social media platform you can think of. This is an opportunity.


    For public services it’s an opportunity to listen to what’s happening (good and bad) and use this information to shape services to meet what people need. They might not be ‘asking’ for something, but they are ‘telling’ in what they share. You just need to ‘listen’ in the right places.


    During FMD-01 things were different and the process of listening was often carried out through formal consultations and research projects. There was no reliable way of engaging with the conversation in the post office or pub.


    An example of research that described the impact of FMD-01 on the farming community features in this report. Be warned it is hard hitting, ‘The impact of the foot and mouth outbreak on mental health and well-being in Wales’.  Published in 2003 it’s based upon solid research, but I am left wondering about timing and ultimately, it’s impact on decision makers and service providers.


    The impacts of FMD-01, including mental health, lasted for many years in the rural communities of Wales. In contrast a lot of the conversation around the mental health impacts of COVID-19 are high profile and ‘real time’. I think this has influenced the delivery of more immediate measures to deal with negative effects.


    From my experience I think that sharing stories through social media, and the ability of public services to listen and quickly take actions, has made a positive difference in COVID-19 compared to FMD-01. Ultimately only time (and probably a research study) will tell, but social media does mean we are at least talking about it in real time.


    So, what can we do?

    1.       Recognising the impact of social media and the difference between FMD-01 and COVID-19 might help identify opportunities around how information is shared and how we listen (and learn).

    2.       Work out who you can trust for your information. Think about your role as a ‘trusted source’.

    3.       Work out where you need to be to listen effectively to social media. People talk and share, a lot.


    About the author: 


    A person wearing glasses and smiling at the cameraChris Bolton is part of the Good Practice Team at Wales Audit Office. This involves working with a wide range of people to identify and share good practice to support improvement in Public Services. Chris is involved as Board Member of two organisations outside of work and was a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow in 2018. Chris reflects on these and other experiences on his personal blog [opens in a new window]: Before working in audit Chris worked in environmental improvement and regulation.