Social Media as a Tool for Promoting Global Public Health

Social media continue to be popular worldwide. Globally there are more than one billion people on Facebook, and YouTube is the second most used search engine in the world. India is poised to become the largest Facebook market this year; people in Japan spend more time online than people from any other countries; and Russia is home to 40,000,000 blogs.

The international use of social media channels has great potential for promoting global public health. The active participation in social media is particularly useful for providing hard-to-reach audiences like young people, ethnic minorities and vulnerable populations with relevant health information and support to help spread illness prevention and health promotion messages.  In Uganda, the “Sugar Daddies” campaign combats high HIV infection rates among young women by training them to send their peers informative or motivational messages via Facebook.

The speed with which these messages can be shared and discussed in digital social media is exponential. Recent research found that a Facebook post will reach half of all message recipients in the first 30 minutes after it is posted online.  This is especially useful for communicating about emergency response initiatives!  One public health researcher in the UK found reports of an outbreak of vomiting on Facebook quickly helped identify an additional 80 cases in one disease outbreak.

The CDC has been working with social media platforms for years. Work I presented on at the American Public Health Association’s 2012 annual meeting showed how, a popular social media website that promotes offline interaction, helped reach 10,000 people with its flu vaccination campaign. Moreover, seventeen of the 75 target groups convened to get flu vaccinations together during the program — accounting for an estimated 300 new vaccinations. “By working with a social media platform where actions are a natural part of the way users participate, the number of people vaccinated became a tangible goal for the campaign,” a representative said.

Mobile geo-location is an emerging area for health-related messaging and interventions. According to Pew Research Center, as of 2010, “4% of online adults use a service such as Foursquare…that allows them to share their location with friends and to find others who are nearby.” While these percentages may seem low, it still represents a few million users a month and those numbers increase among minorities and youth. Also, these geo-location applications are expanding rapidly with many people checking in through platforms like Foursquare.  The American Red Cross’s Foursquare campaign has used geo-location applications to support its blood drives at mobile and temporary locations.

Social gaming also presents health providers with an opportunity to reach target audiences who may not be looking for health information. According to Nielsen, 50% of Americans are receptive to advertising in their social games if it means that they can play for free.  Tobacco Free Florida used social gaming to raise awareness about smoking cessation, running a PSA in-between levels of the games.  CDC’s national influenza vaccination campaign ran an award-winning mobile social gaming campaign last season. 

These new uses of social media suggest that digital communication can be used as powerful channels for engaging key audiences quickly to improve public health. More research is needed in this area to identify the best ways to use social media to enhance health around the globe.

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