Recent fuel shortages were a hot topic on Facebook, but did social media cause the scarcity, or simply reflect people’s experience?
Unless you’re the smug owner of an electric car, you probably spent time hunting for fuel recently. Maybe you cruised around your local area scoping out petrol stations, weighing up whether it was worth joining the rapidly growing queues. All the while wondering at what point the ‘empty’ light on your dashboard really meant empty.
You may also have checked in via social media. Maybe asking your friends and family for help finding fuel on WhatsApp. Possibly reading about the successes or failures of others on local Facebook community groups. Almost all of us will have seen images of queueing cars on our social media feeds.
The digital reflects the real-life; Google searches for ‘petrol’ reduce to normal levels, and we all feel the crisis ease.
As the UK breathes a collective sigh of relief, people are starting to look deeper into the cause – Covid? Brexit? The public?
The question on our mind is: did hype around the shortages on Facebook contribute to, or even cause the crisis? Did Facebook pour fuel (if you’ll pardon the pun) on the fire?
A survey carried out by YouGov found that whilst 23% of those surveyed blamed the government, and a further 22% the public themselves for panic buying. But a whopping 47% blame the media entirely for the crisis.
The popular narrative behind these poll results is that relatively low-level fuel supply issues were amplified by excessive social media exposure. This in turn, drove the ‘panic buying’ that led extensive fuel shortages.
But is social media really to blame?
Certainly some content was panic-inducing. It’s reasonable to think that viral pictures of huge lines of cars, petrol station brawls and Facebook Marketplace ads for extortionately priced jerry cans of petrol pushed some to the pumps.
But it would be wrong to blame social media entirely. These things happened – there were queues, and fights, and profiteering. By spreading footage of these incidents, social media platforms were simply reflecting real-life back at us.
And let’s not forget, the fuel crisis in 2000 resulted in panic buying without any help from social media.
Social media may even have helped during the crisis. Some created local Facebook groups aimed at connecting fuel with those who needed it most. Sussex Live reported on one such group in Brighton, quoting the founder’s mission:
“There are fuel deliveries happening all the time but nobody knows where, which results in many wasted journeys and people stranded without fuel. I just wanted to connect people who knew where fuel was with people who needed it”.
On the topic of misinformation, Facebook fares less well
Predictably, conspiracies ran rife on the platform during the crisis.
“Hasn’t it occurred to you” one very well-shared post reads: “that during the lockdowns, many people weren’t driving their vehicles and so there was a surplus of fuel. Well did you know FUEL EXPIRES! So what do they do to sell off their surplus fuel before it expires? Pretend there’s a shortage so you’ll have it in your tank instead of them having to get rid of expired fuel and lose money”.
In the long-term, the circulation of these conspiracy theories weakens public trust in government. People panic and over-purchase when they’re scared, and think the government isn’t looking after them. For contributing to this erosion of trust in public institutions, Facebook should take the rap.
So, did social media contribute to fuel shortages? Maybe, partially, but people have a right to share their lived experiences on the platform. To suggest that Facebook should have suppressed such content would edge dangerously close to censorship.
One thing that we can learn is that context is important, online as well as real life. The challenge is that our differing lived experiences mean we all bring different context to the table, so one person’s scare story is another person’s factual re-telling of events.
Think Studio offers a range of social media marketing services for clients, helping brands to give the right message to the right people at the right time. We provide content creation, audience insights to community management and Facebook advertising. Get in touch with us to find out how we can help you to create better business.