Social media has enabled millions of people to remain connected, updated and entertained while observing movement restrictions during the pandemic. In particular, Facebook community groups have proved invaluable in delivering information and a sense of inclusion.
For administrators and moderators gatekeeping page memberships, discussion threads and ensuring content adheres to moral, legal and cultural rules, the workload has soared alongside numbers of posts.
Personal trauma drove Freya Jaffar, who lives in the capital, in Mushrif, to create Abu Dhabi Q&A in 2013. Similar to other "admins", she has seen the online group become a pillar of support as the global health crisis has escalated.
Jaffar, who has a fashion design and technology background, created the page after suffering postnatal depression. “It was the lowest point of my life,” says the Briton who, finding “no one to turn to”, sought to pivot the experience to help those similarly affected.
Now among the six groups she manages, Abu Dhabi Q&A has become a valued resource to 56,753 members, most of them living in the capital.
“There needed to be a free, non-judgmental community support channel for residents,” says the mother-of-four, who has seen people’s emotions heighten around Covid-19 amid hugely increased screen time.
“Many have become more dependent on my platforms in recent weeks as an emotional anchor. I am offering more emotional support to members with ‘buddy meets’ over Zoom now.
“Unfortunately there has also been a rise of ‘chancers’ taking advantage of people’s goodwill. So that is something we are having to monitor now, too,” she says.
'For every terrible experience there are three good ones'
Jaffar and five assisting moderators have connected members to outside groups offering support and help to those in need, although she says more moderation has been required as some people losing their “emotional footing due to the uncertainty” have become aggressive.
“I tried to manage it for a while but then opted to switch to ‘post approval’ for all members while Covid-19 restrictions are in place.
“This allows me to see every post. They only go on if I approve them. I ensure there is no panic … [or] rumours being spread.”
Jaffar admits overseeing a platform hosting various cultural perspectives, socio-economic groups, ages, genders and religions can be challenging and occasionally brings unwarranted accusations of personal censorship.
Other infringements include derogatory comments, illegal businesses and offensive language.
“It’s the dark side of social media we accept when we take on these roles. I am learning to put my emotions aside for the bigger picture. For every terrible experience there are three good ones.”
Keren Bobker, who launched British Expats Dubai in 2017, also says time and patience are commodities demanded of administrators.
Among the most popular nationality-focused pages, Bobker's online community – nudging 9,000 members – has become more valuable in recent weeks.
“I dare not calculate the hours it takes each day, but it is significant, especially of late, when I have spent a huge amount of time clarifying the latest rules and updates for people,” says Bobker, who runs the group with her husband, plus good friends.
“Whenever there is a change or an announcement, we get the facts to members as soon as we can, even if announcements are late on a Thursday evening or over the weekend.”
Although Covid-19 has been dominating everyone’s thoughts, Bobker, an independent financial advisor and also a columnist for The National, cites humour and entertainment as key group ingredients.
Since mid-March, she has sought to distract or cheer up people with something fun at least once daily, posting puzzles, quizzes and questions. “In a time of uncertainty, people appreciate a group with facts, info and a place where we share a sense of humour and cultural references,” says Bobker.
“We have helped numerous people get fair treatment from employers by giving them the facts. Many have found jobs via our jobs page, we have helped re-home cats and dogs, and put others in touch with people who can help in specific situations, personal or medical.”
Bobker also says while most are appreciative, some members are occasionally removed for rudeness, aggressiveness or simply joining to promote themselves excessively.
“A small percentage get nasty,” she says. “[But] I have also received numerous messages telling me the group has been a great support. It can be very rewarding.”
'Every member who posts a question will get the answer they need'
The widespread economic impact of the pandemic has similarly boosted traffic to the Shop Well For Less page. Launched in January 2018 by Debbie Steedman and Colin Mackenzie to share discounts and help people reduce expenditure, it has 21,500 members across the UAE.
Steedman, a mum based in Al Barsha, says: “Overnight we had to go from a group promoting shopping around for the best deals to one discouraging people to shop.
“There was a lot of discussion in the early days of the crisis about which supermarkets to use and how to make money go further, but also trying to make sure people did not bulk buy in order to keep stocks high," she adds. "Previously we encouraged bulk-buying as the best way to save money.”
Steedman believes members have found support from each other.
“Every member who posts a question will get the answer they need, whether relating to Covid or where to find bread flour. We also regularly post updates from the government.”
With almost 18,000 members, Real Mums of Dubai was already a busy social platform for mothers and mums-to-be, but activity “exploded to a new level” with the pandemic.
“We reached 250,000 posts one week,” says former teacher Megan Al Mazrooqi, who started the group in 2016.
“We saw the panic and needed to find a way to keep the group running for normal motherhood queries, as well as to help calm fears. There have been tough days as everyone reacts differently to change and fear.”
Al Marzooqi, a mother-of-four in Sharjah, and her two moderators, introduced a dedicated “corona post” where mums add articles, links and updated information.
“The range of queries relating to Covid-19 has been huge, from those stuck abroad to people losing jobs and income, to those wanting to leave the UAE to go home,” says Al Mazrooqi, from Northern Ireland.
The page has implemented a dedicated home-schooling post for mums to ask questions about what their children are struggling with, and another filled with activity ideas, links and pictures to engage them. “We are in unprecedented times and we are trying to adapt the platform to help in ways to make mums’ lives easier,” says Al Mazrooqi.
“It is not easy, but we are lucky the group truly is a village where we are all supporting, uplifting and helping each other. A lot of mums, myself included, would be very lost without it right now.”