UniteHealth Awards to Highlight Power of Social Media Networks for Good During COVID-19
Unlocking the power of social media (illustrative)
Unlocking the power of social media (illustrative)

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in December 2019, an explosion of information and misinformation burned across the Internet. Health experts and officials had a choice: To turn a blind eye to the fake news being shared on social networks or to take action themselves and use these portals to disseminate essential information rapidly.

In Tanzania, initially one of the world’s most COVID skeptic countries although it made a big U turn later, Asad Lilani chose to do the latter. Lilani mounted an Africa-wide “One-by-One Campaign” using social media influencers to spread the message, in association with Access Challenge, a public health non-profit with branches in Nigeria and Dar Es Salaam.

“Social media is important in health, today and in the future,” he told Health Policy Watch in a video interview.

During the height of COVID, Lilani recruited “micro and macro influencers,” who were popular on different social and traditional media channels.

“We don’t just look for the biggest numbers of followers or engagement, but who the influencers are, as well, and what kinds of personalities they have,” he said. At the same time, the aim is undoubtedly reach. The team found influencers with as many as 10 million followers and people from multiple sectors – sports, music, business, etc.

One-by-One's Twitter page
One-by-One’s Twitter page

Access Challenge armed these influencers with information about the virus, vaccination and how to stay safe and let them loose to share the messages.

“Being a COVID influencer gave these influencers a sense of pride and unity,” Lilani said. “These were people who wanted to use their platforms for good.

UnitedHealth awards to reward positive use of social networks during COVID

Votes from more than 60 countries so far

Lilani, representing Access Challenge, is now one of the co-hosts of this year’s UniteHealth Social Media Awards, which will showcase individuals and organisations who used social media to strengthen collective understanding of the pandemic and evidence-based responses.

The awards, to be announced in May, are meant to say “thank you” to those who gave their time and expertise to create a positive influence on social media platforms, said Prof Jeffrey Lazarus, a health researcher at the Barcelona Institute of Global Health, and co-founder of the awards. Winners will be featured in a series of events and activities coinciding with the World Health Assembly that will help increase their social profile.

Nominations for award candidates are being solicited around the world on the open access platform which anyone can join. The platform is co-sponsored by UniteHealth and eight other non-profit organizations engaged in public health and health-related media work – including Health Policy Watch.

So far, more than 5,000 votes have been cast from more than 60 countries, with the highest levels of engagement from Mexico, the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Canada, Thailand and Spain, according to UniteHealth. So far, nominees include government officials, NGO workers, scientists, community activists, doctors, nurses, and journalists.

The COVID-19 Social Media Awards cover seven categories, ranging from technical areas of pandemic policy to understanding the virus, and COVID-19 vaccines. There is also a ‘Young Leader’ category to recognize the contributions of social media users and influencers under the age of 30.

“The interest in this year’s awards is remarkable,” said Lazarus. “It demonstrates how people in every corner of the world relied on getting credible information – and tackling frequent misinformation about COVID-19 – through their social media networks.”

The pandemic struck at a time when levels of trust in governments, and related to that, trust in health institutions, already was being called into doubt as a result of the creeping influence of ‘new media’, and with that, fake news. This sowed doubts about how governments responded, due to what motivations, and whether the responses were sound. In the context of the COVID pandemic, a vocal minority questions the effectiveness of public health approaches, from mask-wearing to social distancing and even vaccination.

On the one hand, skeptics took to social networks, sometimes spreading misinformation or causing confusion. Other the other, health institutions and experts also used social networks for disease surveillance, to disseminate health information, identify and combat misinformation and detect or predict COVID-19 cases.

Either way, users turned to social media networks to seek and share accurate health-related information and gain support.

“We cannot ignore social media, whether we like it or not,” Lilani observed. “Young people are on social media. We did a survey and saw that in Tanzania, for example, most people got information about COVID from social media. For example, some people said they stopped looking at the news and only checked Twitter.”

‘Knowledge changes attitudes’

Yulia Komo works with AFEW International, another co-host group and a Dutch-based non-profit focused on human rights in the health context of Eastern European and Central Asian (EECA) countries.  She is focused on Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. Many years ago, she received a degree in communications but that was not her primary focus.  Moreover, when the pandemic hit, she was on maternity leave.  But she saw how panicked people were and realised she had the tools to take action.

“As a multi-language speaking mother, when COVID started, I realised that I had access to Zoom and could play a role in bringing NGO leaders together,” she told Health Policy Watch.

Komo started hosting regular calls with her colleagues to identify populations in need, exchange tips, and check information from each other’s countries. Because of her background in social impact campaigning, she took the information she learned and shared it on the networks.

Not only did she post openly, but she also engaged in chats and forums and used Facebook Messenger to raise people’s knowledge levels and decrease their fear.

“Knowledge changes attitudes and leads to more balance behavior,” she said. “People were panicking, and I found that social media was one of the best ways to help them. Also, we could use social media to find out what people may need and then ensure they received it, such as safely getting them medicines for chronic illnesses when they may not have had access because of the pandemic.”

Today, through AFEW, she has a team examining the use of social networks during pandemics or other crises and trying to identify basic communication concepts that can become a toolkit for the next emergency.

“Social media is a viral source to spread information,” Komo said. “Our role is to ensure that our virus – positive information – spreads faster than the actual COVID or other viruses so people are not scared.”

‘We started engaging religious and traditional leaders’

Nigeria’s Zakari Osheku, executive director of PHC Initiative Africa, has a similar take. One of the 300 award nominees so far, Osheku said that in his country, a large younger population relies on social media for their information. So during the pandemic, “we felt we could reduce tension and spread the right information by using social media platforms.”

Calming the community was incredibly challenging in his country, where he said fake news dominated the public sphere. According to Osheku, “there were a lot of misconceptions, even amongst the elite or educated people.”

He said people felt the COVID-19 vaccines would cause infertility, would put a tracking microchip in them and more.

“We started engaging religious and traditional leaders, as well as putting out messages to debunk the myths associated with the vaccine,” Osheku said.

Zakari Isiaka Osheku's profile page
Zakari Isiaka Osheku’s profile page

The team used Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to push their messages.

“Firstly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we used social media to disseminate information and clarify misconceptions around COVID-19 and vaccines,” Osheku said. “Secondly, social media can monitor the spread of the virus by tracking conversations and posts related to COVID-19. This can help public health officials and researchers identify trends and hotspots and develop targeted responses.

“Thirdly, social media can be used to engage the public in pandemic response efforts, including promoting public health messages, encouraging social distancing, and sharing resources and support for those affected by the pandemic,” he continued. “Social media has also been used to provide mental health support during the pandemic, with many individuals turning to social media for emotional support, advice, and resources.”

Nominations and voting for the awards remain open until the end of 20 May 2023, and the winners will be announced on 13 June 2023. To take part, visit www.socmedawards.com/2023.

Image Credits: Erik McClean via UniteHealth.

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