Social media and public discourse in Mongolia www.fes-asia.org
Social media is a dominating force in public discourse. In the case of Mongolia, proactive and transparent use by public health authorities has helped limiting the spread and impact of misinformation, populist messages and fear.
The impact of social media on Mongolia’s young and fragile democracy is ambivalent. On the one hand, there is a clear benefit from more direct and open communication of politicians, journalists, and scientists. But on the other hand, digital populism with all its detrimental effects on democratic discourse has been rising for several years.
Creating trust in public health authorities
In Mongolia, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the more positive aspects of social media’s impact on society. Surely Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, were used for increased attempts of social media fraud, hacking, fake charities, fake news, and the spread of misinformation. But important, though, was its successful proactive use by the Ministry of Health.
Since January, the ministry has been providing daily updates on COVID-19, informing the public on the global spread of the virus, the country’s number of cases, and measures the ministry is taking. Those briefings quickly became the main source of information for the public and limited the potential spread of misinformation and fear significantly. In addition to its regular updates, the government developed information dashboards, infographics, a series of cartoon videos advising kids for prevention measures, and translated materials, which help equipping the public with knowledge and information while building trust in public health measures.
Changing the tone of public discourse
Mongolia also can serve as an example of how social media can set and change the tone in public discourse on certain issues. The first COVID-19 case that hit Mongolia was recorded on 15 March 2020. The patient, who has now recovered, was a French citizen who did not follow the two-week self-isolation warning when he entered the country. At first, the situation escalated quickly when Mongolians expressed their discontent, calling out on all foreigners for having a neo-colonial attitude by ignoring the country’s strict quarantine rules. But quickly the tone of this conversation shifted from discriminatory to compassionate after a letter from a Mongolian grade 5 student to the French patient was made public. The letter expressed the girl’s concerns for the French patient’s physical and mental health. Although the letter was not published through Facebook, a photo of that letter emerged on the platform and went viral. The French citizen’s reply and its translation followed suit and went viral as well. Subsequently, hatred gave way to compassion. The Frenchman was even awarded a Mongolian nickname: Ankh-Otgon, which loosely translates to First-Last, meaning that he was hoped to be the first and last case of COVID-19 in Mongolia. This kind of positive viral story demonstrates how quickly the tone of public attitude and behaviours can be changed on social media.
Criticizing government actions
Another hot topic on social media was the evacuation of Mongolians stranded abroad. Since all known cases of COVID-19 in Mongolia were imported from abroad, public opinion was (and still is) split on the issue of Mongolians returning home. A large-scale repatriation effort would naturally lead to an increased risk to those already in the country. Many families with relatives stuck abroad, most of them in hard hit countries like the US, China and South Korea, criticized the government for not doing enough. Frustrated citizens took matters on social media, calling out the government or the State Emergency Commission for selecting citizens for repatriation based on their power, money, and relationships. Those citizens are getting organized in a Facebook group (11,790 members) demanding action from the President and the Prime Minister of Mongolia. In addition, the movement also calls family and friends in Mongolia to “Do not Forgive – Do not Vote”.
The parliamentary election scheduled for 24 June complicates this matter even further. Parties and candidates are using social media as their main communication platform. Without bringing in many of the stranded citizens, the parliamentary election could be overshadowed by the new public movement, while at the same time, evacuating citizens prior to the election could mean increased public health risk.
Social media is instantaneous and more viral than the current pandemic in reaching people. These stories from Mongolia affirm the possible positive impact of social media in the current crisis by building solidarity and offering tools for citizen to get organized and voice their concerns.