Until three weeks ago, Divya Vinekar had not heard of Norbert Elekes, a self-proclaimed “data storyteller”, who has been tweeting Covid-19 statistics round the clock to over 180,000 followers for the last month or so.
“Suddenly his tweets started showing up on my timeline,” says the 31-year-old theatre artist from Mumbai, implying that a lot of people she follows on Twitter were engaging with Elekes’s tweets. These are realtime updates on coronavirus cases from around the world, along with a comparative analysis of these numbers over a period of time.
At a time when “nobody talks about anything else but the virus outbreak, his timeline offers statistics at a glance for one to stay updated,” says Vinekar.
Elekes is an influencer now. And he isn’t alone. Data scientists and healthcare experts, who share data and insights on Covid-19 on online platforms, have emerged as the social media influencers of these times. From Peter Kolchinsky and Michael Shellenberger to Scott Gottlieb and Anna Podolanczuk. They are well-known in their fields but have gained overnight popularity among regular folk.
For instance, Tomas Pueyo, a Silicon Valley professional specialising in product, marketing and sales. On March 10, he uploaded on his Medium account a post titled “Coronavirus: Why you must act now”. It made a strong case for social distancing to reduce the devastating impact of the novel coronavirus on our lives. The post, backed by graphical analysis of the situation at hand, fetched over 40 million views and got translated into 30 foreign languages within a week of publishing.
“About a month ago, I had 300 followers on Twitter. Now, I have over 30,000,” says the 37-year-old in an email correspondence with ET Magazine. Ever since his first post on Covid-19, Pueyo has been “living in a parallel universe,” he says, “doing everything I can to push the message (of taking strong measures against the virus outbreak), which I think is saving countless lives.”
Initially, friends from Silicon Valley approached Pueyo to understand how bad things were. “After the articles went out, suddenly I had governments reaching out.”
With an influx of fake news and a sense of uncertainty surrounding the disease, many are actively seeking credible voices to follow online, to help them navigate a scenario they have never experienced in their lifetime.
While searching for authoritative sources, Gayatri Manchanda discovered virologist Kolchinsky on Twitter. In the initial days of the pandemic, the lack of clarity around the origin of the virus and its vaccines had become an anxiety trigger for Manchanda. “Peter’s use of common parlance to explain the genesis, progression and future of coronavirus made it easy to understand for non-virologists like me,” says the Delhi-based writer and artist.
In Mumbai, Priyanka Sehgal relies on the tweets of US-based medical and healthcare professionals like Eugene Gu (418,000 followers) and Faheem Younus (73,000 followers). “It helps me verify every piece of information that shows up on social media platforms, especially WhatsApp, and share the right information with my family, too,” says the the media professional.
Trying to be realistic amid this crisis makes some of these influencers come across as optimists, says Kolchinsky, who is a managing partner at healthcare investment firm RA Capital Management in Boston. “But I also emphasise dark realities that people don’t appreciate, like the fact that the young may not die but they could get so sick that they end up in the hospital, taking a respirator away from someone old who will die without it.”
Some influencers are accused of alarmism as well. California-based environmental policy writer Shellenberger’s overall follower count has gone up but he suspects he may have lost some of his 68,000-plus followers over the last few weeks who agreed with his criticisms of climate alarmism but didn’t like his pandemic alarmism.
Psychotherapist Alaokika Bharwani advises influencers to balance the bad news with some positive developments. Shellenberger says he is already making an effort in this direction. “Further, my tweets focus on policies, like more testing, rather than behaviour, like wearing masks,” he says.
Their different domain expertise and tone of voice notwithstanding, each of these influencers is motivated by a sense of “civic duty to help others understand what we are all facing,” says Kolchinsky.
These experts often don’t pay attention to building their social media following — unless they have a team managing it for them — as they don’t have the time, says Lakshmi Balasubramanian, who runs the influencer marketing agency Greenroom from Bengaluru.
Between work from home, three kids, household chores and responding to queries from his followers, Pueyo manages just four hours of sleep every night these days. It’s not very different for Shellenberger and Kolchinsky. Unlike other influencers, they don’t post to gain online clout. But their wit game is usually on point.
“Can the virus be transmitted via food?” Kolchinsky is often asked. “Possibly, but why would anyone eat a hamburger someone sneezed on even without Covid?” he retorts. “In the absence of a mask, is there any value to holding your breath when you are near someone?” asked a user on Twitter recently. “Hold your breath for about 10 minutes and you won’t have to worry about Covid at all,” he replied.
If nothing else, facts and humour will save us.