Public Health Messaging in an Era of Social Media
Public health organizations have always used messaging to educate the public in an attempt to control the spread of epidemic diseases. Early efforts that relied on word-of-mouth communication and poster campaigns transitioned to radio and television as those technologies emerged, yet these forms of communication likely have become less effective in a crowded, noisy, and confrontational online environment. Over the past decade, emerging digital platforms have become sophisticated, targeted, and responsive in reaching and influencing the public.
Widespread physical distancing during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has limited informal social interactions and exposure to signage is considerably lessened as many people limit travel, order products online, and work from home. An effective messaging strategy will require meeting people where they are and through the information networks and devices they use for day-to-day interactions. As of December 27, 2020, more than 80 million people have contracted COVID-19 and 1.7 million have died. The need for effective public health messaging about community spread, prevention measures, and vaccines is more important than ever.
Digital platforms are powerful yet underused tools for engaging the public and should be considered essential for public health preparedness, response, and recovery. This Viewpoint explores the following 4 strategies to advance public health messaging during this and future public health emergencies: deploying countermeasures for misinformation, surveillance of digital data to inform messaging, partnering with trusted messengers, and promoting equity through messaging.