Texting during crisis: Mobile becomes news, grocer, retailer, bank, hangout

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

This post first appeared in The Future of Commerce and Engagement on March 25, 2020: Texting during crisis: Mobile becomes news, grocer, retailer, bank, hangout.

There is also a Japanese Version, published on May 1st, 2020.

These are historic and extraordinary times that we are living through – all over the world, due to the corona virus (or COVID-19) pandemic.  Many entire countries, cities, counties, and regions are completely shut down except for essential services in order to ensure social distancing and to limit the spread of the virus.

Around the world, people are yearning for information – mainly through online sources: news sites as well as social media.  Sometimes, though, we forget that the simple text message (or SMS message) can also provide, timely, accurate information and is available for many people. Additionally, in times of heavy internet usage, the use of text messaging to receive timely and accurate updates can help people be more informed.

It is important for people to remain connected and communicate, even though we must all practice social distancing. Text messaging, through whatever channel, is one of the most popular means for people to continue to have social interactions.  But more so, messaging channels are excellent ways for people to share and disseminate information.

Group Messaging

For example, one of my colleagues that works in the San Francisco area told me that he and his family are part of a closed WeChat group.  They have members who have farms in California and people can place orders for fresh vegetables, eggs, and other necessities that are available on the farm.  The produce is delivered directly to the people, as they need, thus avoiding the necessity to venture out to grocery stores. Virtually everything is handled through WeChat.

Local messaging groups are a good way for people in a neighborhood or small region to collaborate, find where supplies and goods are, exchange ideas, and even just talk.  While we can send a message to multiple recipients, to take it step further, one could consider using a platform such as GroupMe, which uses SMS, but the group is assigned a group phone number.  The head of the group and can invite people and members can accept to receive group messages and can certainly control their memberships.

Of course, WhatsApp has great group messaging capabilities as many users are able to leverage these in much the same way my WeChat using colleague has done.  WhatsApp allows for groups up to 256 people and once with a number of features to mute and customize notifications as well as participation.

Text Alerts for Official Information

In the United States, in many places, people can sign up for text alerts from their city or county.

For example, where I live in Loudoun County, Virginia, I have signed up for COVID-19 alerts by sending LCCOVID19 to the US short code 888777. Most people can simply send their Zip Code to 888777 and can find out about alerts that way.

Alternatively, you can go to your county or state (.gov) website and there will most likely be alert options.

Outside of the United States, many countries have similar offerings that should be explored.

Beware of Fraudulent & Misleading Texts

With all of the good that can come from the various messaging channels, unfortunately, we must note that there is a great deal of misleading, fraudulent and just wrong information that not only circulates on social media, but on WhatsApp, SMS, and other messaging channels.  

We do caution you on signing up for or responding to SMS alerts that are not part of some town, city, county or state program.  There are fraudulent sites out there.  Be wary of sites that send you alerts that are from a full 10-digit phone number vs. an approved short code like 888777. 

Outside of the United States, and especially in countries that allow alphanumeric short codes, we have been notified that there are many who are seeking to exploit the coronavirus pandemic and may be trying to circulate fraudulent messages.  Examples of some questionable alphanumeric sender IDs include:

  • Corona
  • Virus
  • Wirus
  • Pandemic
  • COVID19

and many more. People must be vigilant against fraudulent, spam, and phishing messages – no matter where they are in the world.

Over the last few days, news stories started surfacing about misleading claims being spread on WhatsApp. While many of these are also repeated on other social media channels, WhatsApp was noted due to their group messaging capabilities and encryption, making it very difficult to police or moderate content.

On Wednesday, 18th of March 2020, WhatsApp launched the Coronavirus Information Hub. They did this in partnership with the WHO, UNICEF, and UNDP along with a US $1 million donation to the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). The Coronavirus Information Hub provides information for consumers, health care providers, educators, nonprofits, local governments, and local business about how they can help disseminate accurate information.

Keep Texting, but do so responsibly

SMS, WhatsApp, WeChat or whatever messaging channel you choose is an excellent way to communicate and keep in touch with colleagues, friends and family during these trying times. As many of us are have our daily lives disrupted by the coronavirus, it is important to use whatever means works to get and share information in a timely and accurate manner.  Messaging is the perfect venue for that, but remember to also be vigilant for unsubstantiated rumors, false or fraudulent information.

Everyone please stay safe and healthy.