Facebook sees 70% increase in Messenger group video calls following coronavirus outbreak

Meanwhile, people stuck at home in Italy are spending more time than usual watching Facebook and Instagram Live.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
4 min read

Social media is playing a huge role at this time of social distancing.

Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Following the outbreak of coronavirus, many of us had to make significant changes to the way we socialize to remain in step with medical guidance, which advises widespread social distancing. Fortunately, keeping in touch with loved ones no matter how far away we are from them physically has never been easier, thanks to the many digital options at our fingertips.

Social networks and online communication services are already starting to see the impact of people increasingly relying on technology to stay in touch. It's something Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touched on in a press call last week, but on Monday the company provided numbers to show the increase in use levels it's currently dealing with.

According to data shared with CNET, as of the end of last week, 70% more people are participating in group video calls using Facebook Messenger week-over-week, and the amount time spent on those group video calls has doubled globally. Similarly, voice and video calls on WhatsApp have more than doubled year-over-year in the places most impacted by the virus.

Just like other social media platforms including Twitter and YouTube, Facebook is battling the ongoing spread of fake news, conspiracies, rumors and disinformation regarding coronavirus. But it also serves as an essential hub for people to connect as communities and families at a time when all the advice is for people to stay at home and minimize face-to-face contact. According to the company, community leaders and healthcare professionals have been using the platform to distribute information and support. In the UK alone, one million Facebook users belong to one of the 1,000 COVID-19 local support groups on the platform.

The surge in activity has yet to take its toll on Facebook's ability to handle traffic, but Zuckerberg said in last week's press call that the company is preparing to respond if use levels elevate even further. 

"We're trying to make sure that we can stay in front of this challenge," he said. "Right now, this isn't a massive outbreak in every country around the world but if it gets there, then we really need to make sure we're on top of this from an infrastructure perspective and make sure that we can continue to provide the level of service that people need in a time like this."

Spotlight on Italy

Outside of China, Italy has been the country hit hardest by coronavirus, with almost 54,000 confirmed cases and almost 5,000 deaths at the time of writing. 

Facebook data shows an outpouring of support for Italians at this difficult time, with over 2 million posts from around the world expressing solidarity with the country as it went into lockdown. It measured this by counting posts using encouraging words, such as 'andra tutto bene' (everything will be fine) or 'io resto casa' (I'm staying home).  The top countries outside of Italy found to be expressing the most support were US, Germany, Switzerland, UK, France.


A man in Bologna, Italy talks with his grandparents over a WhatsApp call.

Massimo Cavallari/Getty Images

"In the state of emergency that we are living in, people in Italy and other countries affected by COVID-19 need to get timely information, stay in touch with loved ones, and share messages of hope," said Laura Bononcini, Facebook's director of public affairs for southern Europe.

While they've been stuck at home, Italians have been taking up activities such as balcony singing, but they've also been spending more time on their phones than usual. In the last week alone, Instagram and Facebook Live views doubled in Italy.

Italian researchers have been taking advantage of Facebook's Data for Good program (under which data is shared solely with health researchers and nonprofits that sign data license agreements) to study the spread of the pandemic. Researchers at the University of Pavia near Milan are using a combination of publicly available datasets, including high-resolution Population Density Maps and the non-public Disease Prevention Maps program (made up of de-identified and aggregated mobility data), with the hope of developing insights that will support the local response to the outbreak.

There is still much about the virus that scientists don't yet understand and the kind of disease modeling work being performed by the University of Pavia will play a crucial role in assessing how it might progress.

Meanwhile, Italy's lockdown entered a new phase on Sunday, as the government banned any movement inside the country. With people's freedom of movement increasingly restricted, Italy's Dipartimento Protezione Civile (Department of Civil Protection) has been going live on Facebook every day at 6 P.M. local time to disseminate the latest outbreak numbers and the country's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has used Facebook Live to communicate with citizens. 

Politicians using social media to spread official information seems to be very much a case of meeting people where they are. Facebook claims that the governors of Italy's regions have more than 2 million people liking or following their Facebook pages people and thousands of Italian support groups have sprung up across its platforms as the virus has taken its toll on the country. 

"People are gathering and forming communities to support each other and help those in need," said Bononcini. "More than ever, we appreciate the value of bringing people together for the common good."