Amidst the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, BBC’s international development charity, BBC Media Action, created Ebola WhatsApp broadcast lists in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The lists were used primarily as a broadcast platform to distribute locally produced multimedia public health content.
Prior to Ebola, BBC Media Action had been working with Krio language radio stations in Sierra Leone to cover local development issues. When coverage shifted to Ebola, the organization considered different tools to complement its radio programming and ensure that content was relevant, accurate and effective at helping communities protect themselves. WhatsApp was selected based on the success of the BBC World Service’s regional WhatsApp Ebola News Service. In late 2014, the World Service had created a French- and English-language Ebola list to share repurposed BBC reporting and information from health organizations. More than 20,000 people subscribed after WhatsApp gave a special dispensation to the BBC, lifting its cap of 256 subscribers for broadcast lists. BBC Media Action saw the popularity of this service and decided to create localized versions of the Ebola WhatsApp service. WhatsApp was selected over SMS because it enabled BBC Media Action to develop multimedia content for Sierra Leone and Liberia’s illiterate populations and because SMS would be more costly for users. Managing SMS also required an aggregator, whereas WhatsApp could be set up for free and accessed by anyone with the app, regardless of their mobile network.
While the Sierra Leone list was created on a local number and managed from a local office, BBC Media Action did not have an office in Liberia, so the list was initially managed from London. For both Sierra Leone and Liberia, BBC Media Action added new contacts manually and used the lists to broadcast information to communities to help prevent and treat Ebola. At times, subscribers wrote back to BBC Media Action either in response to requests for information or with questions of their own about routes of transmission and government and agency response plans. This information helped identify areas of concern that could be addressed via WhatsApp and radio, such as dispelling rumors, encouraging behavior change and directing people to services.
BBC Media Action considers the WhatsApp list a success in Sierra Leone, owing largely to the app’s multimedia features and familiarity. BBC Media Action’s prior research indicated that WhatsApp was commonly used by
Sierra Leoneans with smartphones to share content with their communities. The Sierra Leone WhatsApp service received more than 14,000 subscribers, while the list in Liberia, where WhatsApp is not popular, received
total engagement in the hundreds. However, the smaller group in Liberia enabled more two-way engagement with subscribers, who responded to questions posed on the list and submitted substantive feedback on the utility
and clarity of content. In Sierra Leone, it became difficult for the BBC team, which had only been set up to send information to the full broadcast list, to act In individual direct messages.
In both countries the manual addition of contacts was labor intensive, especially as there was no WhatsApp Desktop at the time. Having all WhatsApp communications confined to a single phone made it difficult for the team to work collaboratively and created an existential risk to the WhatsApp program if the phone was lost or stolen. The BBC Media Action team felt that the broadcast list had great potential to collect actionable feedback from subscribers, but without a desktop app or open API, they could not easily manage the high volume of incoming content. Moreover, much of this incoming content was not substantively useful. In hindsight, the team felt that an automatic filter mechanism for incoming messages or a way to automate responses or conduct surveys via WhatsApp would have allowed them to engage more purposefully in the two-way communication messages.