Social Media in Preparedness, Response, and Recovery to COVID-19

woman with mask and phone
Social media can be a critical tool for disseminating reliable information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social media can be a critical tool for disseminating reliable information on the COVID-19 pandemic. This may include information about when to get tested, what to do with the results, and where to receive care. A viewpoint on the subject was recently published in JAMA.

In the current age of social media, information about the COVID-19 outbreak has spread incredibly fast due to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp. Unfortunately, false claims and conspiracy theories are spreading on these platforms at a faster rate than health officials can address. To counteract misinformation, agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other health care organizations have taken increasingly aggressive and proactive steps to position social media as a tool in addressing and managing the COVID-19 threat.

Social media platforms are crucial in the process of disseminating factual information about COVID-19 directly. These platforms can promote content posted by vetted sources and discourage those that are factually inaccurate. Additionally, trusted sources can use social media platforms communicate directly with people by utilizing banners, pop-ups and other tools to post guidance on subjects such as social distancing and hand washing. Social media can also serve as a diagnostic tool and referral system that can be used to disseminate verified information to the public about when tests for COVID-19 are available, what to do with the results, and where to receive care. Furthermore, based on an individual’s online profile, posts and underlying risks, social media platforms may be used in a personalized, targeted approach to help users determine their own unique course of action.

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Social media platforms also allow for new strategies to increase the education of health care professionals, including remote learning. This can facilitate ‘contact’ among students, support active learning, and enable health care workers to share experiences caring for critically ill patients.  Research can also be enriched by analyzing social media data on symptoms, travel routes, interactions, photos at events, and other digital footprints in real-time. Researchers note that this information could be used to understand and model the transmission and trajectory of COVID-19 across communities. An example of this is how Facebook has provided aggregated and anonymized data to researchers about how users move from location to location as well as associated population density maps. Social media platforms have also been critical in times of self-quarantine and social isolation. These platforms allow for connectivity, and psychological first aid by allowing communities to mobilize resources as well as support recovery and resilience in the absence of physical contact.

The research summarized in the viewpoint provides evidence of how social media can be an influential tool in managing preparedness for, response to, and recovery from COVID-19 and future public health threats.

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Merchant RM, Lurie N. Social media and emergency preparedness in response to novel coronavirus (published online March 18, 2020). JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.4469