18 May 2021 20:08 IST

Facebook groups extend support in India’s fight against Covid

Social media has become a lifeline for people seeking aid to get accurate and timely information

Hi Guys, I need help asap! My FIL (father-in-law) is in Chandigarh and losing oxygen level fast. Any help will be appreciated!” read a member post on the SOS Global Indians Facebook page on May 6. Nearly 38 members responded, all in a few hours. One volunteered the phone numbers of oxygen retailers, another the contact information of cab drivers in a city under lockdown. One said that GMCH (Government Medical College and Hospital, Chandigarh) had hospital beds and provided a phone number. Others just prayed for the patient, publicly expressing support.

Seven hours later, the member who originally asked for help posted an update: “Thanks to everyone for all the help. We were able to admit him to a hospital, and he is stable for now. Thank you once again!”

Timely help

Welcome to how Indians are coping with the second wave as all levels of government (city, state, and the Centre) have miserably failed them. Accurate and timely information is a significant weapon to confront the pandemic, and social media has become the lifeline, literally. With all of its imperfections and anonymity, the public square has suddenly begun to light up mobile phones, and consequently, lives.

SOS Global Indians, one of several Facebook groups launched after Covid hit last year, was started by Michael Khanna and a few other volunteers to help those displaced worldwide to return home on repatriation flights safely. The group has rapidly grown to 1,32,000 members. Khanna says the group has one purpose. “We came into existence to handle emergencies and crises of people. We are interested in resolving our members' issues. That is our priority. That is our only priority.”

The group is different because of its stress on information validation through a high degree of moderation of all content on the group page. When members submit a new post, approval can take hours as moderators scramble to validate it. Prolific posters publicly rue this truth and urge members to upload their thoughts as comments to existing threads. The sheer volume of comments often means that it takes time for moderators to catch and take down something that may violate group policy.

Credible sources

Much like a news organisation, group moderators seem to face a battle deciding between which post constitutes fact and which post is an opinion. Facts from government and official sources get a quick nod. News-based media stories go through additional scrutiny before they are approved. Even if they are already available in the public domain, opinion articles at major newspapers are often declined.

This policy prompted me to seek an interview with Khanna to understand how the group operates. Khanna, who lived in Plano, Texas, and currently is based in Delhi, says that the decision was based on group protocols that require senior moderators to collaborate with “media partners” first and disallow posts by uncleared journalists. “You can appreciate that a group of our nature can be exploited by members and participants who don't have any orientation/appreciation for dealing with media partners.”

Khanna takes his role as the founder and evangelist of the group seriously. He serves as a full-time volunteer administrator to build on the group's reputation of hosting timely information that is authentic, validated, and regularly updated — the page's hallmarks. The “files” tab is a treasure-trove of disparate information — the latest Air Suvidha guidelines, a list of private hospitals in India offering vaccines, a distributor list of Tocilizumab. Devoid of any commercial content, the group has earned its members' trust and become their first stop when facing an emergency.

SOS Global also retains volunteers — who live in the US, the UK, and India — and are experts themselves (doctors, immigration lawyers, mental health practitioners, travel insurance specialists). They provide four to six hours of pro-bono advice each day to urgent member questions and keep the site alive with updates on a 24x7 basis. But professional advice, by definition, is opinionated and subjective and not as easily verifiable as official rules governing entry requirements at an airport.

Connecting people

I asked Khanna how SOS Global Indians is helping fight the second wave on the ground. He said, “We try to do things in a small, controlled manner that is impactful. We announced a fundraiser to work with an NGO partner who is on the frontlines. We are now facilitating the delivery of oxygen concentrators, protective gear, supplies, and medicine for our on-the-ground NGO partner.”

If things do not work out as planned, raising funds and funnelling them to a third-party organisation risks the considerable trust equity that Khanna has built with his members. It is also a big ask of members who contribute and receive information but do not do much more. But Khanna is confident. “Benefactors worldwide rarely know what their funds are used for or what impact their funds have. We are different. We have the paperwork and the transparency to show our members very openly where their contributions are going.”

I asked him how SOS Global Indians will stay relevant once the Covid crisis gets over. “We have constantly evolved, and we will continue to do so. We would be happy to put Covid behind us and move on to dealing with other important issues for our members — travel, immigration, health, and education.”

Trust is a commodity that is often lacking in the public sphere. Judging by members' comments and actions, Khanna is on to something. During the five days that it took me to complete this piece, the group's membership increased by 2,300 people. Don't be surprised if SOS Global grows to several hundred thousand members in a short time, an extraordinary success story for a Facebook group where strangers help people anonymously but do so with profound impact.