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Turning to social media for help in the wake of COVID-19

More than 16 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits in the last three weeks as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds the economy to a near halt. Even as many wait for the first direct payments from the U.S. government as part of the recovery bill, people in dire financial straits have been turning to social media to ask for help. NewsHour Weekend's Sam Weber reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Over the last three weeks more than 16 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits as the COVID-19 pandemic has ground the economy to a near-halt.

    Millions of Americans are waiting for direct payments from the government as part of the recovery bill. Some in dire financial straits are turning to social media to ask for help. NewsHour Weekend producer Sam Weber reports.

  • Sam Weber:

    In late March, author and marketer Frederick Joseph sent a tweet to his more than 60,000 followers: "If you're short a few hundred bucks on a bill, reply and I'll @zelle/@cashapp you." Meaning, I'll pay it for you. And he pointed his Twitter followers to a GoFundMe page where they could help him pay other people's bills.

  • Frederick Joseph:

    I think we expected maybe for it to get to like $20, $30,000. And that's kind of where I put some of my marketing muscle in.

  • Sam Weber:

    Joseph and his fiance, Porsche Landon, who is helping with the campaign, watched from their New York City apartment as donations grew. What started as a $10,000 grant from crowdfunding platform GoFundMe has grown to more than $240,000 as of this morning.

  • Frederick Joseph (on Twitter):

    The goal of this fund has been to help as many people as possible a few hundred dollars here, a few hundred dollars there.

  • Sam Weber:

    Each day, Joseph, Landon, and a small team working with them are sending that money, $200 at a time, to people who ask for help on Twitter and Instagram. They use the hashtag #RENTRELIEF, but they help pay more than just rent.

  • Frederick Joseph:

    Now they're actually posting photos of their bills, $200 is a lot for people right now, right?

  • Sam Weber:

    Each transaction is documented with a screenshot of the confirmation from Cash App, a popular app for sending and receiving money.

  • Porsche Landon:

    We try to find stories that resonate with us, but also just to be fair and even and try to see everybody.

  • Sam Weber:

    Joseph and Landon say they have been deliberate about giving to people in all kinds of situations.

  • Frederick Joseph:

    So it's not a matter of them having to be like, 'Hey, I'm terminally ill and have 25 children.' It's like, 'I'm a college student who is struggling.' So we're showing a spectrum transparently so that people don't assume anything. We're trying to keep people guessing so that there's no formula for them to follow.Sam Weber: One of those people who saw Joseph's original tweet was Walker Gaultney, who goes by the nickname Sonny.

  • Sonny Gaultney:

    I was like, you know, it can't hurt. I mean. Things have been really tight for quite a while.

  • Sam Weber:

    Gaultney started replying to Joseph's tweets each day. He posted screenshots of would-be scammers trying to request money using Joseph's likeness, a common trick online. And he posted about himself: the 33-year-old who lives near Macon, Georgia hasn't had a steady job since last November. He wrote that he's "negative in the bank and $950 dollars in the hole on rent."

  • Sonny Gaultney:

    There's been many times where I've pretty much kind of accepted in my head that I was going to end up homeless that way if it came to that, I'm prepared.

  • Sam Weber:

    Then last week, Joseph sent him $200, no strings attached. It wasn't enough to get him out of debt, but he says it helped change his attitude.

  • Sonny Gaultney:

    I feel like I've kind of sank to a point to where I really don't see a lot of faith in humanity, if that makes sense. You know, so something like this happening, it makes me feel a lot better, you know? And I wish I were in a position to do the same thing he is.

  • Sam Weber:

    Frederick Joseph's #RENTRELIEF campaign is donating $10,000 a day, $200 at a time, as long as the money lasts. And it's not the only one trying to help people in this way. Philanthropist Bill Pulte has been giving away cash and publicizing it on social media since last summer. His posts offering help routinely generate tens of thousands of replies.

    And in mid-march, writer Shea Serrano kicked off tens of thousands of dollars in giving with this post: "[bleep] coronavirus. Who has a bill coming up that they're not sure they're gonna be able to pay? Send me your bill and Venmo."

    Despite all these efforts, of course the need right now is enormous, and thousands of people who ask for help don't get it.

  • CJ Edwards:

    There's so many people trying to get on there, that we're sitting on there trying to constantly comment and it's like, it's like if you win, you win the lottery.

  • Sam Weber:

    CJ Edwards is an elementary school teacher and Victoria Abnathy is a full-time nursing student. They live in Lakeland, Florida and to make ends meet they both worked part-time at a local restaurant. But when the restaurant became take-out only because of COVID-19, they lost those jobs.

  • Victoria Abnathy:

    We honestly have to prioritize. Okay, rent first. And then how long can we push out the phone bill? How long can we push off the car payment? Because I have a car payment I have car insurance. I go to an accelerated school, it's very expensive. So that's going to be another loan that I'm going to have to pay off when I graduate. So it's just it's crazy to think, I guess, because we live it, but it's crazy to think that some people think that a teacher salary is able to cover that much.

  • Sam Weber:

    Everyday, CJ diligently posts on Twitter asking for help, hoping that this will be the day that he gets noticed by those giving out money.

  • CJ Edwards:

    I believe that they're doing something incredible. I just, my biggest thing is that I get my hopes so high up and then I'm like, 'huh, it's not me' or 'it's not us.'. And I just I continue to try and I continue to hope that maybe one day it will be. Maybe one day we can, I guess, win that lottery.

  • Frederick Joseph (on Twitter):

    For those of you who haven't been chosen yet, please don't be discouraged…

  • Sam Weber:

    Frederick Joseph acknowledges that philanthropic efforts like his are not enough. He believes the kind of support that can make a real difference right now needs to come from government.

  • Frederick Joseph:

    Rent needs to be suspended, right? The goal is that if it does continue, we don't want it going to rent. We want it going to the people who need groceries, the people who need to keep their light bill on. Because, frankly, if rent is due next month and people are dealing with this for the next few weeks. The country's going to explode, frankly.

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