The Role of Digital Influencers during the COVID-19 outbreak
Background situation with the virus outbreak in Ukraine
The Covid- 19 pandemic has not lessened it's grip on the world, with more than 96,000 people being infected and more than 5,000 deaths daily according to data published on 15th May.
The role of digital companies has been highlighted, as due to the quarantine, as people have ended up quarantined in their homes. And along with the rise of the internet traffic around the world people started to interact more with digital companies.

This has particularly been used by governments to spread information to the public about the coronavirus, like in the Great Britain where the government is willing to pay and cooperate with information creators in order to fight disinformation and support businesses who are facing a serious financial hit due to the pandemic.

In Ukraine, the situation with the spread of internet access is quite sufficient for the population to access the possibilities of digital usage. According to the Ministry of Digital Transformation at the moment around 70% of Ukrainian territory is covered by high-speed internet. Thus, people have access to social media and are affected by influencers and digital practices that government, business and private citizens use. At the beginning of the Covid-19 spread in Ukraine, the situation with communicating the pandemic and its consequences were not originally government policy . People were getting information from news coverage, and were becoming frightened by the reality and the amount of information and competing stories. As a result in the beginning people could be easily manipulated to protest, or demand the isolation of the sick. The majority of Ukrainians were also unaware of how the disease spread and the best practices of protection. The biggest and most vivid example was the protest in Novi Sanzhary,. On the 20th February around 72 evacuated people from Wuhan were transferred from China toNovi Sanzhary, where a closed medical center was controlled by the head of the Ukrainian National Guard. The decision to place the 72 patients there caused a riot as the local population feared the spread of Coronavirus. The protests resulted in the blocking of the road and protesters throwing stones at the bus carrying the patients.

Later, it was confirmed that none of the evacuated people were sick. Such an event raised the issue of proper communication with the population: the facts about the disease, the ways to protect people, and the lowering of the fear of those that lacked proper information. On behalf of the government, the President Volodymyr Zelenskiy instigated daily speeches on television, notifying the populace about the numbers of infected, the situation with coronavirus tests on both television and social media. Similarly, city mayors, like Volodymyr Klitchko in Kyiv became very active on social media, in order to spread information on Covid-19 as Kyiv had one of the biggest infection rates in Ukraine. In particular, Klitchko became one of the most active digital influencers from the government side, producing videos with online challenges to stay at home and describing the situation in Kyiv. One interesting case was Klitchko's experiment of targeting various audiences through messages about the pandemic . For instance, Klitchko uses Tik Tok to address the younger population, and as Tik Tok at present has almost 6 million Ukrainian users, and with Ukrainian hashtags gathering millions of likes (footnote), more and more influencers are using the app (footnote). Tik Tok is even more popular than Instagram or Facebook in Ukraine.
Source: TikTok Klichko account (Mayor is showing how to trim your hair at home)
The Ministry of Health of Ukraine stated that 15% of all those infected are from 11 to 30, which is partially a sign that younger people do not take the MOH's coronavirus prevention recommendations seriously. Thus, both government and private influencers began making posts with hashtags on Covid19, stay at home challenge hashtags and the MOH even made "Coronavirus_info" account with the #washyourhands challenge. Another good example of digital tools used during pandemic by government and official influencers was a digital partnership with Viber which reached 3 million subscribers. The choice of a channel was due to extensive usage of Viber in various Ukrainian municipalities. Other accounts were made in Telegram, Facebook and What's app.

Oleg Shimanskyy, a communication specialist that works with Covid-19 issues identifies several top channels that targeted the population with messages:
"One of my clients is working with different municipalities (around Ukraine), we see that viber is a big tool there, with local chat groups in town and villages, and that's how the interaction spreads really. The biggest effect has been television, Instagram is very popular among younger groups, Facebook has a large influence. Super targeting really works, where people use telegram or viber with existing chat groups or messaging platforms."
Positive and negative impact of digital influencers on the population during the pandemic
Ukrainian influencers that are not government representatives have reacted with social causes, open letters, and free giveaways and challenges to support the population and businesses. An interesting social cause was created by Volodymyr Dantes, a singer and television presenter who during the pandemic decided to promote local businesses for free through the campaign Post4Rost.
Each week the singer, who has more than 586,000 people on Instagram alone, together with his friends and top influencers in Ukraine such as Lera Borodina (entrepreneur), Nadya Dorofeeva (singer and businesswoman), Oleksiy Durnev (TV presenter and blogger) and others with a total audience of more than 6 millions users will promote a company with a post and in Instagram Stories for a three month period. Another interesting example of the use of social media during the Covid-19 pandemic, although for negative reasons as it was used to spread fake information to people and panic them was the Eurolab clinic. The company's owner is Andriy Palchevskiy, an influencer active on social media and television and using both medians to criticise the government for their failures with the pandemic. Palchevskiy hired other influencers to post on testing Coronavirus in his clinic. The tests were over nine times more expensive than in other countries and Palchevskiy's clinic became a monopolist in selling coronavirus testing kits within private clinics. The situation was not ended until there were a wave of investigations, critical statements and the creation of the hashtag #Coronavirusbusiness in social media.

Some bloggers are gaining audiences through social media and are acting on so-called hype, as seen with Anton Gura, who at the beginning of the spread of Coronavirus in Ukraine, made posts and videos showing a plane full of sick people coming from Italy to Ukraine. This manipulation of social media had a direct impact on people. Right now a majority of the population is overwhelmed with information coming from social media, online television websites, news-sites and other websites. Discussion in social media focuses on the situation with Covid-19, the situation with unemployment and businesses, the situation on how to help the most vulnerable groups, and prevention disinformation. While this was occurring from the beginning of the pandemic in Ukraine numbers have continued to increase, especially on YouTube. Some influencers use social media for self-promotion, some for social causes like with creating the hashtag #givearidetothemedicalemployee, or signing open letters on Facebook tagging representatives of the government to influence actions on business survival or support of the needy during the pandemic. But predominantly all public figures and influencers convey messages of social responsibility as to #stayathome with videos spread on social media and their participation on television. Such influence has created websites with digital tools that assist in creating content on what to do during the coronavirus pandemic for both content producers and general users.

The impact of influencers has shown that digital platforms are becoming more used and influential in the life of Ukranians. And the role of influencers will only increase with the continuation of the lockdown and the increased digitisation of the information flow.
Natalie Gryvnyak is a Communication expert, journalist for top international media and producer of media projects. She is the founder of Story Production InFeatures and gives lectures on storytelling and communication issues.
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