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Social media during epidemics: a poisoned chalice?

5 Jan, 15 | by Claire Bower, Digital Comms Manager, @clairebower

Social networking is now the most popular online activity worldwide. Social networking sites account for nearly 1 in every 5 minutes spent online globally, reaching 82 percent of the world’s Internet population. As such, sites such as Facebook and Twitter have become an unavoidable part of crisis communication. However, opinion is mixed as to whether this pervasiveness is a blessing or a curse to organisations charged with protecting public health. The very attributes that make social media invaluable to communicators (instantaneous, wide-reaching) also make it incredibly difficult to control and moderate.

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One concern about social media is that it has the potential to generate and perpetuate rumour. Following the first diagnosis of an Ebola case in the United States on 30th Sep 2013, mentions of the virus on Twitter leapt from 100 per minute to more than 6,000. In Iowa, the Department of Public Health was forced to issue a statement dispelling social media rumours that Ebola had arrived in the state. Meanwhile, a steady stream of posts claiming that Ebola can be spread through air, water and food appeared; all of which are inaccurate.

Trying to stem the spread of incorrect information online shares many similarities with containing a virus in the real world. Internet users who have been given false messages from an inaccurate media report, another person on social media or word-of-mouth, proceed to “infect” others with each false tweet or Facebook post. “We have millions and millions of people on these social networks,” says Ceren Budak, a researcher who studies online communications at Microsoft Research. “Most of them in certain cases are not going to have reliable information, but they’re still going to keep talking.”

Part of the issue is thought to be the piecemeal way in which news is now consumed. According to a Pew Research Center study, almost a third of US adults get at least some of their news from Facebook, where recognised sources are competing with friends and relatives. Studies show that people are far more likely to trust information that comes from people they know than faceless organisations. This is how a single false statement on Twitter can affect thousands.

However, a report produced by the TELL ME project argues that “whilst on an open platform such as Twitter, users are free to post any message…the vast collaborative networks that comprise social media often question and correct rumours posted”.  Whilst there is more information online than ever before, users have learned to verify information and question where it is from. “Whilst the ‘citizen journalist’ can report on events ahead of reports by other media outlets or organisations, users are still wary of sources and, even on Twitter, hold official sources in high esteem, often seeking verification before believing alarmist messages”.

The Guardian did a great job of illustrating how one user’s tweet was retweeted several times during the Birmingham riots in England, August 2011, leading to a rapid spread of misinformation. Within half an hour the rumour of riots in a Birmingham children’s hospital spread through the simple process of people retweeting a dramatic and unfounded tweet. Despite this misinformation gaining momentum, within a period of two hours, the Twitter community was able to discredit the rumour. This demonstrates that users of social networks readily collaborate to make informed decisions on the quality of information they are receiving.

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Whether or not social media is seen as a force for good or evil during pandemics, it is a communication channel that those seeking to protect public health cannot ignore. Nor can organisations and individuals involved in crisis communication be reactive to messages shared and posted in this competitive environment. They must instead take a proactive stance in establishing an authoritative presence on social media channels before and during a crisis.

At the recent TELL ME conference, Alexander Talbott, a digital communications consultant specialising in healthcare, offered the following guidance on realising this objective:

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TELL ME (Transparent communication in Epidemics: Learning Lessons from experience, delivering effective Messages, providing Evidence) is a European Commission funded, collaborative project that has systematically reviewed existing evidence to develop practical guidance, online tools and models for improved risk and crisis communication during pandemics.

BMJ was the responsible partner for the report on New Social Media referenced above.

What does the social media landscape look like in China?

28 Apr, 14 | by Claire Bower, Digital Comms Manager, @clairebower

Contrary to popular belief, limited access to certain Western websites has done little to harm the development of social media in China. In fact, it is reported that 91% of Chinese internet users have a social media account, compared to 67 per cent in the US. Given that China has become the world’s second largest economy, how can businesses use social media channels to reach its huge consumer base? more…

What value can social media add to conferences?

14 Apr, 14 | by Claire Bower, Digital Comms Manager, @clairebower

Attending the IOC World Conference for Prevention of Injury and Illness in Sport in Monaco last week got me thinking about the value social media adds to such events. Apparently, 84% of organisers use Facebook to promote their events, while 61% use Twitter and 42% use YouTube. It seems that social media not only facilitates knowledge sharing and networking amongst attendees, it can also help create a real buzz that starts before the event and continues long after it ends.

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Beyond gaming: virtual reality in healthcare

27 Mar, 14 | by Claire Bower, Digital Comms Manager, @clairebower

Following the high profile purchase of WhatsappFacebook has made yet another acquisition. The company behind the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, which found success on Kickstarter (and has since been the darling of the indie tech scene) was bought for $2bn this week.

Although gaming is a cornerstone of Facebook’s business, Mark Zuckerburg’s statement shows that he has further reaching ambitions for virtual reality (VR):

“Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.…This is really a new communication platform.”

In fact, healthcare is already a big adopter of virtual reality, with applications already in surgery simulation, phobia treatment, robotic surgery and skills training. 

Soldiers trying out Virtual Iraq

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What does Facebook Paper mean for publishers?

17 Feb, 14 | by Claire Bower, Digital Comms Manager, @clairebower

The tech community has been watching closely since Facebook went public in 2012 and began its mission to engage mobile web users. News about younger users abandoning Facebook for the trendier Whats App and Snapchat have fueled many a doomsday warning, but refinements made to the platform’s app over the past year appear to have been successful. According to Facebook, an enormous 945 million out of 1.2 billion monthly active users were using the company’s mobile products by the end of 2013.

Now Facebook wants to offer content serendipity with Paper, a standalone iOS news reader app that delivers human and algorithm-curated full-screen articles and photos in categories you select like Tech, Health, and Pop Culture. Mark Zuckerberg said back in March that he wanted to make Facebook “the best personalized newspaper in the world.” However, it seems that the designers of Paper have come up with something closer to a glossy magazine. more…

How to reach your audience at the right time on multiple networks

6 Feb, 14 | by Claire Bower, Digital Comms Manager, @clairebower

Twitter generated an entire ecosystem of social networking apps, each striving to make using multiple social networks, posting everywhere and sharing longer posts, easier. Twitter then started cracking down on how third party apps could use its API and most of us moved back to using each network individually. However, there are still a few apps out there that can make social networking easier and more productive. One of the best is Buffer.

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Facebook News Feed: fewer memes and more high quality news content, please

13 Jan, 14 | by Claire Bower, Digital Comms Manager, @clairebower

In December 2013, Facebook changed the algorithm that determines which “stories” are visible on the News Feed. It seems that the social network has begun to prioritise content from sources that users engage with most. Some fear that content from a  ‘liked’ Facebook page will therefore become negligible if it does not engage its readers.

In fact, a week or so after Facebook made its changes, one social media marketing agency, Ignite, analyzed 689 posts from 21 brand pages. Ignite found that in just one week, the number of people who saw posts from those brands declined by 44% on average, “with some pages seeing declines as high as 88%.” more…

“News = mobile. Mobile = Facebook”? The rise of social sharing news sites

16 Dec, 13 | by Claire Bower, Digital Comms Manager, @clairebower

In a previous post, I discussed the increasing importance of social media optimisation (SMO) at the expense of traditional SEO methods. This week, I’ll be looking at how traditional publishers are testing this theory with product launches that rely almost entirely on consumer behaviour on Twitter and Facebook.

Buzzfeed, a website that combines a platform for detecting viral content with an editorial process to provide a snapshot of “the viral web in realtime”, revealed that it had reached a record high of 130 million global unique users last month.

The company  credited a lot of the growth to an increase in traffic coming from Facebook. However, Twitter referral traffic has also surged, with 180% growth in the past year. The seven-year-old site is experiencing breakneck growth, with global unique user numbers up 350% year-on-year.

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The link between social and business objectives

6 Dec, 13 | by BMJ

A key theme of the Corporate Social Media Summit (#csmeu) was how social media can help businesses achieve their strategic objectives.

Ian Robin, Director of Strategic Accounts EMEA at Hootsuite said that much of the confusion around linking the two can be traced back to how social media was originally adopted by organisations, usually in a ‘cottage industry’ fashion by individual departments who wanted to create awareness around a campaign. This approach worked to an extent but created variation across companies and without a clear vision of how social can be used in a strategically meaningful way.

To help unravel the confusion, some speakers at #csmeu gave best practice examples as to how approaches to social media have been tied back to clear business goals. Royal Mail uses Twitter to engage directly with and reply to customer complaints or queries. Martha Roberts, Head of Customer Support, explained that not only does this service help solve customers’ problems but also presents the opportunity to develop a rapport between staff and customers. Staff are given the freedom to use a personable tone of voice and this gives the company the opportunity to shine: not only is it a customer service exercise but also a great PR opportunity. As you can see from the photo below this approach has instilled improved consumer confidence. One of Royal Mail’s priorities is to be customer-focused and through this example you can trace it clearly back to what they’re all about.

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Why image is everything on social media

29 Nov, 13 | by Claire Bower, Digital Comms Manager, @clairebower

Social media marketing has evolved significantly over the past few years and keeping up with current trends can be crucial for success. One of the biggest changes we’ve seen is the shift towards image-centric marketing rather than traditional text.

According to Trend Reports, between 65 and 85 percent of people describe themselves as visual learners, which means that they digest information more easily by viewing an image than reading text. It’s hardly surprising, then, that image-based social networks such as Pinterest and Instagram are enjoying such high levels of user activity. Even academic journals, such as eLife and PeerJ, are opting for big photos and a clean, navigable design. Not to be left behind, more established social networks are now adapting their designs to meet these changing user needs.

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