Infectious Information

How will social media be used to shape the future of global health?

In a digital age, this question is posed across sectors and participant audiences. The answer, however, is not so easily or broadly identifiable.

Notwithstanding the growing trend to quantify external and internal communications efforts across organisations and corporate groups employing such channels through media monitoring, future trends are just that – hypothetical projections.

What is apparent is that the two giants of the current social media landscape, Facebook and Twitter, will retain their high profile use and interactability offered to NGOs and similar. While reports have identified that the remarkable follower and engagement growth seen across these two platforms in the past decade is likely to plateau, there is reason to believe that these outlets will innovate to both out-compete similar platforms and to attempt to kick-start a rise by attracting new demographics.

Social media is based on transparency and inviting dialogue. In global health settings, communications are frequently motivated to get people to adopt the behaviours recommended by that organisation to protect health and to build that host’s external reputation. In turn, this safeguards trust and support.

Specifically, the youth of today must be educated in global health, through the medium in which they are already well-versed: social media. Through an active radar, alert to new platforms in the social media sphere, global health organisations can hope to reach a new generation fascinated by, but more importantly, one willing to act accountably for, public health concerns.

Talking to the Olivia Lawe Davies, Messaging Communications Officer at the World Health Organisation Head Quarters in Geneva, she reiterated the uncertainty of the future social media world and its role for NGOs. It is certain that it will be key, but its range, depth and cost remain a picture worthy of imagining and depicting vividly. Focusing particularly on young people, Lawe Davies suggests that SnapChat will increasingly be adopted to convey instant messages, while Instagram will continue to offer a relatively nascent, but quick-developing, follower base to issue story style messaging with compelling visuals.

The importance of visuals is increasingly being realised. NGOs and third sector platforms benefit from data visualisation and similar tools that demand audience input and interaction. Infographics are the most currently employed forms of seeing data, offering an accessible and bite-sized graphic breakdown of written content.

Key considerations to be factored in when considering social media are the audience, timely nature of distribution and the received impression created by the organisation through that channel. As Lawe Davies points out, trust is the foundation of any organisation, and communications can be instrumental in building – and breaking – that.

What is evident by such a discussion is that the so-called social media toolkit is the reserve of a developed nation, or one that enjoys the privilege of being exceptionally connected. Although it is commonly reported that as of 2014, handheld mobile devices now outnumber the world’s humans, this overlooks the many individuals who will never receive mobile signal even if they do own such a device.

In these areas, radio remains a crucial channel for international health coordinators in areas of crisis to disseminate health directives, safety information and updates. Working with regional and local outlets, relief workers can issue messages translated into the target language, and so create a media of sociability specific to the target country.

Across both the developing and developed world, at head office or in situ, communication is an often underestimated, and poorly measured tool in the relief ammunition against international health crises and emergencies. Increasingly, NGOs are outsourcing communications analysis to companies springing up in this demand vacuum. For instance, the Social Media for Global Health (SM4GH) or formerly the Social Media Interagency Working Group, offers a space to connect and share experiences around the use of social media to promote the messages and products of global health and development organisations.

Social media is 99% listening. This means responding to questions and metaphorically pricking up ears for the next platform that might facilitate more streamlined engagement or offer a novel and productive tool. On that note, please leave any comments, suggestions or further reading points in the space below.


Image Credit: Jason Howle, Flickr

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