When I was a kid, I remember driving around in the car with my dad listening to the radio when, out of nowhere the radio would go silent. That sudden silence was even more jarring than the series of sharp buzzing sounds that followed. Buzz … buzz … buzz … on and on, they seemed to go. Then silence again, followed by the same announcement each time, verbatim: This has been a test of the emergency broadcast system. If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed where to tune in your area for news and official information. At 10, I hated the emergency broadcast system. At 40, I find myself so overrun with information that I yearn for an alert to tell me where to tune for news and official information, a trusted news source where my neighbor and I would share the same informational point of departure. But honestly I wonder, do people even listen to the radio anymore?
The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an unprecedented need for up-to-the-minute information, expert health recommendations, and updates on local health and policy changes to curb spread of the disease. These days, I find myself wondering: Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an updated way to alert a broad swath of the population with news and official information; a vector for information sharing that had achieved a technological reach large enough that nearly 80% of the population could be reached in a single message? A broadcast system that reached into pockets of the American population typically underserved by traditional news media, and that tapped into a system that Americans were already using voluntarily to exchange news and information?
How it might be used
What if that system could be leveraged to capture trends in disease transmission down within cities and even within neighborhoods? It might be used to target messages to individuals in those cities and neighborhoods, so that residents of those areas would know not only the vague “shelter-in-place” order, but could be informed of exactly what was permitted under the order and official changes that were made to those permissions. While we’re dreaming, maybe this system could allow individuals to come together as a community: to share emotional support, and even to provide resources to community members who were struggling.
If this all seems to be converging around social media sites like Facebook, you are only partially right. The potential for Facebook and other social media sites to play a critical role in disaster response is irrefutable. Facebook has the buy-in and the data to be a key player in disseminating policy and health information to the American public, in generating the data required to understand health risks to individuals based on region, residence, and demographic characteristics, and to inform effective local policies. High penetration rates mean that Facebook messages reach people from nearly all walks of life — and a lot of them. So why has Facebook emerged as such a poor stand-in for an emergency broadcast system and what can be done in response?
The answer is that where the emergency broadcast system directed listeners to official information, Facebook plays no role in distinguishing official information from biased conjecture or falsifiable claims. Information abounds, and is transmitted among friends, meaning that access to information is tied up in who your friends are — and hot button conjecture is put on an equal footing with official CDC recommendations for managing disease spread. This is hardly ideal in a pandemic, and articles currently circulate on Facebook with fake recommendations, false cures, or claims challenging the legitimacy of the COVID-19 pandemic and response. In addition, Facebook remains dominated by digital natives and continues to neglect the needs of older adults, who may have more technical difficulties or may be uncomfortable sharing personal information online. This failure to engage older adults may leave them vulnerable to being under- or ill-informed, and thus at greater risk of disease exposure.
What we should ask of social media platforms
This pandemic requires that users hold social media platforms to a higher standard than we have in the past. We know that active engagement trumps passive in bolstering well-being. High quality, vetted, verifiable and factual information is paramount, and we do not want our parents and grandparents left out of access to up-to-the-minute recommendations on how to stay safe and connected. To that end, it is time for consumers of social media technology to demand social responsibility and community engagement from social media websites. During health emergencies, we ought to call on social media outlets to take an active role in keeping all Americans equally informed and socially engaged by:
- Running banners on all pages featuring up-to-date CDC recommendations and highlighting changes.
- Actively reaching out to aging and other populations underserved by social media.
- Making sites friendlier to seniors by revising information-sharing policies and allowing users to easily opt out of sharing personal information.
- Promoting active social and community engagement, rather than passive scrolling.
- Foregrounding science-based articles from reputable sources and censoring (not just flagging) false information.
- Working with the CDC on messaging strategies accessible to all Americans.
As social media sites continue to exert a profound influence on public opinion, information, and engagement, it is high time that they acknowledge their influence and work to move from a consumer good to a public one.
Jude Mikal, Ph.D., is a research scientist in the Health Policy and Management Division of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. His research focuses on how individuals use social media to combat stress, improve health, and exchange support.
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