Social Media Use for Public Health Issues: Superficial or Sustainable?

ice bucketIn 2015, Forbes magazine reported that between June 1 and August 13, 2014, 15 million people commented, posted or liked the Ice Bucket Challenge on Facebook. 1.2 million videos were posted about the Ice Bucket Challenge on Facebook. Another 2.2 million people tweeted about the challenge. By all accounts, the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) social media campaign was a huge fundraising success for the ALS foundation raising 11.4 million dollars  in 2014 compared with 1.7 million dollars in 2013 prior to the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Social media campaigns like The Ice Bucket Challenge and Livestrong bracelet promotion and the Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) pink ribbons raise awareness about health issues and are designed to be engaging on social media platforms.  livestrong

Yet, much of the use of social media about these campaigns were one-way communications. For example, BCAM reported the average number of tweets about their latest campaign was less than two per user suggesting there were not on-going conversations between users, organizations, and their followers.

Public health organizations, such as the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Public Health Association (APHA) are using social media as a channel to distribute information and educate rather than using social media to create conversations and engage with the audience to influence health behavior. Superficial gimmicks like the Ice Bucket Challenge can act as a catalyst for sustainable, health behavior change. Making new behavior ‘stick’ takes persistent effort and patience to wait for the behavior change to become a sustainable, everyday public health norm.BCAWA

If public health organizations are to effectively use social media, they must dedicate resources (time, money and personnel) to their social media campaigns and develop a strategic communication plan that includes best practices for expanding reach and promoting interactivity and engagement. Here are three ways that public health organizations can use social media to expand reach and promote public interaction and engagement:

1. Shift communication from population level to individuals 

Use social media to establish real-time, responsive interaction with the target audience by soliciting ongoing user-generated content in selected media platforms.

2.  Use social media to drive dialog and policy responsiveness by demonstrating target audience engagement 

Engagement keeps organizations from being perceived as tone deaf or insensitive to the concerns and needs of the target audience. To be engaged means that organizations are constantly listening, responding, interacting, learning, and using social media to drive ongoing improvements in engagement. The higher the level of engagement, the more effort and resources are needed by the organization to adequately and effectively maintain a consistent, coordinated engagement approach. Health metrics derived by this engagement can be use to track disease or illness in populations.

3.  Leverage social media engagement for public health behavior change impact and sustainability 

Information is not sufficient to change health behaviors. Social media provides opportunities to connect with the target audience in their communities. In May 2012, Facebook, allowed users to share organ donation status on their Facebook timelines sharing this with the users’ Facebook friends. These Facebook users could then officially register online as an organ donor with their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.facebokk organ During the 12 day campaign, there was a 21.2-fold increase in new online donor registrations on the day the initiative began. While the number of online donor registrations decreased throughout the 12 day campaign, registration rates remained elevated after the campaign was done.
As Shirky put it in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organization, “Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies – it happens when society adopts new behaviors.”


Shirky, C., Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organization, Penguin Press, New York, NY (2008).

Thackeray et al.: Using Twitter for breast cancer prevention: an analysis of breast cancer awareness month. BMC Cancer 2013 13:508.

Thackeray et al.: Adoption and use of social media among public health departments. BMC Public Health 2012 12:242.


7 thoughts on “Social Media Use for Public Health Issues: Superficial or Sustainable?

  1. This is a great topic! I did a podcast on this issue and the #icebucketchallenge this week as well. I loved the example of be Facebook organ donation data you brought up. This was something I wondered about as well. Are these awareness or donations campaigns actually causing change? I find the subject fascinating because a true viral video or hashtag can’t be manufactured (other than on Jimmy Kimmel). It’s very nature is that it is unscripted and spread initially from individual to individual not from organizations to the masses.

    Great points and very well written. I would enjoy a sentence or two at the end that wraps up your post.

  2. Excellent job displaying how effective social media can be in spreading a good message. My Facebook and Twitter would have at least 10 posts a day on the ice bucket challenge. It spread like wildfire. To answer the question above about if these campaigns do bring about change, I think they do because they bring about awareness. In this particular case I read somewhere that the ice bucket challenge brought in nearly $100 million. If this is an accurate amount of money and they did use it for ALS research then this campaign was very successful to say the least. If organizations had brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas as popular as the ice bucket challenge the sky is the limit on what can be accomplished through social media.

  3. Nice and engaging post. I liked the distinctive voice and perspective you brought to the topic. It might be useful to provide click through links to your reference list where possible.

  4. Love this post! I see this trend in communication across all the social media I use. Many organizations are simply putting out there education and awareness, which is a starting point. I like your tips on crossing that line to really engaging and making impact. I think organizations can really take the next step by initiating conversations and dialogue, promoting the two-way communication. I would suggest the same as the above person to have more click through link where possible. Great post!

  5. I am sharing similar interest about campaigns’ longevity and ongoing public engagement into social media public health promotional/awareness campaigns. I found good references in your blog about what can be done to expand and advance social media role in public health issues. I see social media blogging as a great tool to engage individuals and solicit instant feedback as a response to your #1 goal. It is becoming more common for organizations to connect and establish relationships with their audiences via social media networks which is in line with your goal #2.
    Goal #3 is the most challenging in my mind: what happens when campaign is over? This is where I think innovation and creativity coupled with use of multiple social media tools and dedicated resources, as you have mentioned, will support ongoing efforts for health promotion and influence/reinforce behavior change.

  6. Well written post. The first line provides a dramatic fact that is an eye-catcher– this is certainly a key feature of blog posts that get shared and re-tweeted. The only aspect I would change would be to add more links to make it more interactve. A good opportunity to provide links would be in your references section.

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