This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
Many comparisons have been made between the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the 1918 Spanish flu. However, this time around, the public health sector has one more instrument in its doctor’s bag: social media. Misinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic have wielded an alarming influence on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, but public health professionals here in Michigan have also harnessed social media’s power for good.
For the Washtenaw County Health Department, using social media to protect public health was not a novel idea. In the recent past, the department’s communications director, Kayla Steinberg, has used social media to address opioid abuse, suicide, measles, hepatitis A, and Eastern equine encephalitis. When COVID-19 arrived, the department already had its social media platforms in place.
“Information spreads fast on social media, both accurate information and inaccurate information,” Steinberg says. “The inaccurate information spreads especially fast if it seems like good news – cures or prevention. People really grab onto that. We know that these miracle cures are more harmful than helpful. We combat that information and provide accurate information.”
Over the past two and a half months, the department’s #StayHomeWashtenaw and #StaySafeWashtenaw campaign has generated more than two million impressions over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Nextdoor, and YouTube — more than twice as many as all the department’s 2019 impressions combined. The department’s audience on all platforms has grown since the beginning of March, and Facebook followers have tripled. Post topics have included the latest information and data on COVID-19, what executive orders mean, and prevention guidance, as well as community resources for food, cleaning supplies, help with monthly expenses, health insurance, sexual health, mental health, people in recovery, and domestic violence. A post about COVID-19 testing sites reached 10,000 people in one day.
“Because the information changes so quickly, social media can be a good vehicle,” Steinberg says. “The traditional ways of communication aren’t as available. People are in their homes and local media is not as available as it was years ago. Especially during the whole pandemic, people are hungry for information. There is a lot of uncertainty, a lot of unknowns. Correct information being voiced over social media is super helpful.”
When Steinberg read messages from followers who were worried about their friends and family ingesting disinfectant as a result of comments from President Trump, she posted about the importance of following label instructions on cleaning solutions and how to properly clean foods to prevent spread of the virus. When social media began spreading racial discrimination against people of Asian descent, she countered with facts that showed the virus had been spread by travel — and Asian-Americans were no more likely to get it or spread it than anyone else.
“We learned a lot of things from past public health crises about being a source of trustworthy information, with messages that come from trusted people through engaging graphics, video, and multiple platforms,” Steinberg says. “Many people are just now realizing the importance of public health in their daily lives. Facebook reaches a lot more people a lot quicker with emergency information. People are definitely paying attention more and it is affecting their daily lives.”
On the downside, Steinberg notes that not everyone has access to the internet, a smartphone, or a computer.
“This pandemic has highlighted the issue of internet and tech access being a public health issue,” Steinberg says. “We, as a country, need to prioritize getting internet access to everyone.”
Combating COVID-19 via social media has brought another need to light: public health budgets must include money to fund it.
“Public health is so underfunded that sometimes health departments don’t have a budget for a communications person,” Steinberg says. “I think it’s a lesson for everyone. We are lucky in Washtenaw County that we have a few people who have time to spend on communications. The pandemic is bringing to light the importance of social media.”
Local influencers strengthen the message
In addition to providing information, Steinberg has enlisted community leaders and respected community members to help get the Washtenaw County Health Department’s message across. On the other side of the state, Berrien County Health Department and Spectrum Health Lakeland are implementing a similar strategy as a means of reaching people of color, especially African-Americans.
“We saw a gap in information getting into the hands of people in the Black and Brown communities in the county,” says Jerry Price, manager of diversity and inclusion for Spectrum Health Lakeland. “… We came up with 12 to 15 multi-generational Benton Harbor residents, those who had trust and large circles of influence, and engaged them in the work of providing accurate, up-to-date data and information.”
Gillian Conrad, Berrien County Health Department communications coordinator, notes that engaging influential community members to help spread important health messages has been a tried and true method used for centuries.
“Our goal with this project is really trying to reach different pockets of people that are underreached by our institutional hospital system and health department,” she says. “Historically, there has been a lot of distrust in a healthcare system that might not have always treated Black and Brown people like they should and a government that doesn’t protect and treat all of the population the same.”
Influencers from specific sectors of the community – school leaders, elders, teenagers, and faith leaders, for example – hosted Facebook Live sessions and created short video messages to share accurate information on how they were staying healthy during the pandemic.
“From the very beginning, the largest rumor was that Black people can’t contract [COVID-19] and children cannot contract it. There were large numbers gathering in close quarters, out in large groups, saying ‘We are immune’ and putting people directly in harm,” Price says. “Our first thing was to get facts out about how the virus is spread.”
According to Conrad, mounting an effective campaign involves more than accurate information. Graphics more successfully answer complicated questions like “Why should I wear a mask?’ or “How does the virus spread?” To drive further buy-in, the Spectrum Lakeland and Berrien County Health Department campaigns employed local school colors and hashtags that resonated with their audiences. People engaging with some posts were asked to use old-school tactics like writing letters and making phone calls to share the accurate COVID-19 information they learned from the videos with friends and neighbors who do not use social media.
“We’re still in this,” Conrad says. “There is still a lot of inaccurate information causing harm right now as we speak. There is so much politicizing, people taking drastic sides. As a public health communicator, this has been so challenging.”
However, the effort seems to have been successful so far. Over the past six weeks, Spectrum Lakeland’s chief marketing officer, Megan Yore, has seen a 20% increase in Spectrum Health Lakeland’s social media followers.
“It’s really very edifying how social media channels are so important during a crisis,” she says. “Using social influencers, that’s new territory for us. Having boots-on-the-ground people talk to people one-on-one through their own circles has been very interesting in this situation.”
“Beyond information, our influencers have gone out and captured stories of people who had contracted COVID-19 themselves, or loved ones who had,” Price adds. “Their sharing personal stories really resonated. Something is not real to you until you know someone who has experienced it.”
Consider the source
Even if you do know anyone who has been affected by COVID-19, knowing which information sources to trust is paramount.
“We encourage people to scrutinize everything they see. Check the sources,” Steinberg says. “COVID-19 is showing how dangerous misinformation affects health and safety. Make sure you are following official health sources: the health department, state of Michigan, the CDC. Change your settings to post these sources first. There’s so much information out there and it’s overwhelming. Take steps that ensure that you have the right information.”
A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media, communications manager for Our Kitchen Table, and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.
Kayla Steinberg photos by Doug Coombe. Lakeland Health/Berrien County photos by Susan Andress.