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The Revolution Will Be TweetedDung Hoang

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted (continued)

Information Needs to Lead to Motivation

Like nature, the Web abhors a vacuum.

The digital revolution has empowered NGOs, universities, government agencies and foundations to fill the void in global health information left by old-school media.  

The Gates Foundation, Population Services International, and many others daily post articles, videos, photo galleries, and podcasts about global health issues related to their efforts. One powerful example of the possibilities of new media happened in August 2012. The UN Foundation filled the traditionally slow news month with “Blogust”—a relay of blog posts about vaccines by top “mom bloggers.” Each day, a different blogger took up the topic and touted vaccines’ importance to her legion of followers. The effort raised $200,000 and attracted more than 29 million page views, according to the Foundation. “[The UN Foundation has] worked with [the moms] since to great effect,” notes Kate James, the Gates Foundation’s chief communications officer. “They are building this group that wouldn’t automatically be engaged to be real champions around vaccines.” 

The Gates Foundation itself recently partnered with social media companies like Tencent and Sina Weibo in China and with China’s Ministry of Health on a successful tuberculosis prevention campaign, she says. They followed that with a campaign on tobacco control in 2012 and raised awareness of the dangers of passive smoking from 5 percent to 19 percent, James says. 

The greater challenge for global health organizations, says James, is to push beyond awareness. “The big shift now is how to move from output—the sheer number of articles about an issue—to outcomes, in terms of commitment to investment and [other] worthwhile things,” she says.

“In terms of resonating and engaging, it all comes back to the power of great storytelling and being able to show the progress through investment in development. —Kate James, chief communications officer,  Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Use Social Media’s Brilliant Feedback Loop 

Traditional media relies on the “blunt instrument” approach, says Christy Feig, MPH ’08, director of Communications for WHO. 

The story is researched, written and published—and then readers and viewers may or may not understand it.

Social media is more of a conversation, says Feig. “With social media, you put something out, and the thought process people go through is live. You can add more information and modify and refute misinformation—all while the thought process is going on,” Feig says.

As an example, she points to her teams’ efforts after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. In the days after the damaged plant’s release of radiation, her team discovered rumors circulating in social media. Some messages circulating in China advised people to consume large amounts of iodized salt to protect themselves. (The rumors had a kernel of truth: Potassium iodide, taken in proper amounts at the right time, can prevent radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid, according to the CDC.) “We instantly jumped in there and said… ‘Don’t eat excessive amounts of iodized salt. There’s not enough iodine to protect you, and too much salt can be toxic,’” Feig recalls. 

WHO’s messages were picked up and circulated through social networks and mainstream media. Iodized salt stopped flying off store shelves. Three days after the initial rumor, Agence France-Presse ran a story with the headline “Chinese seek refunds as salt panic subsides.”

“I think the days of just putting information out there are long gone,” Feig says. “With social media we can get a real quick look at whether or not people are hearing our message the way we need them to. It’s a brilliant feedback loop.”


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