Public Health and Social Media: Catching Fire From Small Sparks

The spark that lit a fire...

The spark that lit a fire…

Public health is regrettably not a field that I often think of when I consider powerful examples of using social media for change and impact, but every so often something changes that.

Monday something changed.

Toronto Public Health, one of the largest health units of its kind in North America, took to Twitter to voice its concern over the hiring of Jenny McCarthy as a co-host of the popular talk show “The View“.

The issue at hand is Ms McCarthy’s vocal advocacy of non-vaccination for children and support for widely discredited and fraudulent scientific claims about the nature of autism and its link to childhood vaccination. On Monday they took to Twitter and suggested to their followers that they voice their concerns to the TV show about the hire and the message its new host sends out.

The single tweet caused a tempest well-beyond teapots.Twitter and mainstream news organizations jumped on the story bringing widespread media attention to TPH’s message and that of Jenny McCarthy (even though reporters like Andre Picard from the Globe and Mail newspaper have been bringing attention to this for a long time).

As one who works with public health units to help them with social media communications this was heartening to see. Toronto Public Health has been a rare example of a mainstream public health organization that has sought to “get” social media and how it works. Indeed, one of their former staff members is a co-creator of a blog devoted to social media and public health. Kudos to them all. (full disclosure: Toronto Public Health is a recent client of mine for social media communications work, however I’ve had no direct involvement with their messaging or am currently under their employ or contract).

Yet, the presence of public health in such conversations on social media is troubling. I conducted a resource review a year ago looking at social media and its use in support of youth-related substance use prevention and treatment (PDF) (including tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs, areas where there is much discussed via social media) and was shocked to find such a tepid presence of public health organizations operating in that sphere. Public health still needs to understand how social networks can amplify a message and what happened Monday just might help make that case.

Network effects and social media

As of today, the direct re-tweets of that message was at 286, but with the many re-tweets not captured by Twitter’s service it is safe to assume the real number is much higher. But a look at the first few Twitter users on the re-tweet list shows the expansive network effects that the message had, even if most of those on that visible part of the list have less than 100 followers themselves. The repeated use of the message and linking it back to different users and articles immediately brings attention beyond Toronto Public Health’s initial 8,450 followers.

Message spreading through network effects

Message spreading through network effects

With one tweet, a message that was lost in the news amidst the other issues last week when McCarthy’s hire was first announced was brought back to life and into the public consciousness.

Drawing eyeballs, but more importantly ‘mindshare’, is what TPH did. From a public health communications perspective that is as good as gold. Whether the ‘campaign’ (one Tweet hardly constitutes a campaign as some suggest) is successful in causing the producers of the ABC TV show to reconsider or not remains to be seen. But no matter what the issue of vaccinations was brought up and offered public health an invaluable ‘teachable moment’ for the public on the issue of misinformation and evidence.

Then there is the case of the journalism program at Carleton University that recently got called out for behaviour that suggests it really doesn’t get Twitter or how social media propagates messaging. By calling attention to something small and silly they have given the account the very attention it sought to avoid.

Being part of the conversation

Social media is an imperfect space for communications, but there is little denying it has the power to profoundly engage the public in small and large ways on issues that are of importance to them. That is the lesson for public health professionals.

Social media follows the McLuhan-esque rules around audience development: It doesn’t dictate to audiences, it creates audiences. I looked at this link between audiences, health promotion and social media in a recent editorial in the journal Global Health Promotion:

Social media realizes [media scholar and McLuhan collaborator Edmund Snow] Carpenter’s vision by placing participation and co-production at its core. It has transformed mass electronic communications from lectures to conversations. This fundamentally changes the way knowledge is created, valued and the social power that comes with that knowledge, taking it from professional or community domains and placing it into a form of digital agora woven by information created through conversation rather than broadcasting.

It isn’t whether social media is good or bad, but whether health promoters and public health professionals wish to be part of a conversation about the issues that influence public health when they need to happen or not. If public participation and engagement is a key driver of policy or programs, which are a driver of social change at a population level, why would we not use it?

4 Comments on “Public Health and Social Media: Catching Fire From Small Sparks

  1. Thanks for the blog mention Cameron. Was disheartening for me to see too! Great points about being a part of the conversation. It’s like walking into a vegetarian party and ordering it to cease because there’s no meat skewers! 😉

  2. Pingback: Attack on Anti-vac – Toronto Public Health vs. Jenny Mcarthy | Public Health and Social Media

  3. Pingback: Designing for Empathy and Health | Censemaking

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