Digital Health Communication and Global Public Influence: A Study of the Ebola Epidemic

Hal Roberts, Brittany Seymour, Sands Alden Fish 2nd, Emily Robinson, Ethan Zuckerman
August 30, 2017

Scientists and health professionals expressed tremendous frustration over the relationship between misinformation circulating on the Internet and the global public’s perceptions and responses during the Ebola epidemic that originated in West Africa. Their interpretation of the situation was often unidirectional: misinformation shaped public sentiment. Thus, corresponding solutions were frequently too simplistic, aimed at correcting the misinformation in an effort to redirect public sentiment globally, an ultimately ineffective approach.

New network theory research suggests the true relationship between misinformation and public perception is much more complex: the networked public sphere is no longer merely a target audience but is now a major contributor to the online health communication arena, shaping the conversations with individual sentiments and social engagements.

In this paper, we explore how models of the networked public sphere online may apply to modern health communication and the Ebola epidemic. We analyze the complex interplay between media, social media, and the broader international community’s response to the epidemic; complications magnified by modern media modalities likely negatively influenced policy responses, diverted attention and resources from where they were most needed, and may have played a role in violations of the International Health Regulations.

This study aims to provide insight into how social network theory applies to modern health communication management moving forward.

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