Social Media Combats Ebola With Facts and Dancing

Posted November 14th, 2014 at 2:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Social media has the power to do good or cause harm: It can raise public awareness and galvanize the masses, or spread rumors and mask abusers and scammers. Using common sense and a dance challenge, Los Angeles-based non-profit End Ebola Now is fighting Ebola on all of these fronts.

The latest in the group’s efforts is a dance challenge that caught the eye of a few Hollywood celebrities, including Kevin Bacon of Footloose fame.

“We really have to give thanks to celebrities like Edi Gathegi and Kevin Bacon and Sam Underwood,” said the End Ebola Now team in an interview with TECHtonics.

“Not only did they donate but they also did the dance challenge. Their followers alone – a lot of them didn’t even know what was happening,” they said.

The #ShakeEbolaOff dance challenge began as an effort to support Emergency USA, a non-profit providing free healthcare and the only fully-functional hospital in Sierra Leone.

“We thought …   why not create a challenge through social media for the West to kind of get involved?” said the End Ebola Now team. “And we could galvanize a whole community of people to act and to donate, to spread more awareness about this issue. And that’s how we created the #ShakeEbolaOff dance challenge.”

The challenge, which aims to raise one million dollars, is only a small part of what End Ebola Now is doing with social media. Other efforts focus on raising public awareness, providing facts and information about Ebola – how it spreads and what the symptoms are –  and debunking rumors circulating on social media, some of which have been deadly.

One particular rumor that originated in Nigeria at the beginning of the outbreak claimed that drinking salt water or bathing in salt water would cure Ebola. Another rumor claimed that eating onions would heal people suffering from the deadly disease.

Timo Luege, a senior humanitarian communications consultant specializing in digital media, says the salt water cure rumors, which killed at least two people and caused dozens of injuries, led to the creation of the successful Ebola Alert Twitter account to combat disinformation and help demystify the disease.

While the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also engaged social media to raise public awareness about Ebola, Luege says the Nigerian-based Ebola Alert has been the most successful.

“They were answering people’s questions,” he said. “And one of the reasons this account and other initiatives were created was … to fight rumors.”

While rumors are not social-media specific, they are easily spread online. But the End Ebola Now team says it is “just important for people to step up and also spread accurate information.”

“And … just because of things like that and the fact that social media is so strong in that way, we just needed a way to combat that,” they said.

Social media is “very powerful and very helpful,” adds Luege, making it “very easy for people to respond to bad information using the same information channels and potentially reaching the same audience.”

But that power also depends on availability and location. Luege says countries with poor IT structure, like Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, are probably best reached through radio, television and text messaging than with social media. On the other hand, he says relatives of West Africans who live in the diaspora are more likely to engage on social media to keep up with the progress of the disease and to keep their families apprised of the latest information.

“The diaspora,” says Luege, “can be a very important source of support … Social media can be very powerful as a means to mobilize support.”

That could mean crowdsourcing to narrow down affected areas or to map remote areas for first responders to identify and access more quickly, and creative crowdfunding ideas including, but certainly not limited to dancing your socks off to help fund medical teams fighting Ebola in West Africa.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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