“It’s like the film with Dustin Hoffman and the monkeys,” said the woman next to me on the tube the other day. “No, it’s more like that other film with the monkeys,” said her companion. “The one where animal rights protestors release them and unleash a zombie virus on the UK.”
The truth, thankfully, is that the most recent Ebola outbreak is nothing like either of these movies. The Ebola virus has yet to mutate into a new strain that spreads like flu as it does so rapidly in Outbreak, and it seems somewhat unlikely that it is going to turn us all into flesh-eating un-dead as happens in 28 Days Later. But what exactly is it like, how much of a threat does it pose, and how are we supposed to communicate the bare facts of virus and disease in an atmosphere of panic and misinformation?
The other day, news outlets were tracing the steps of one of Ebola’s recent victims. New Yorker Dr. Craig Spencer had been all around town since returning from aid work in Guinea. He had taken the subway, visited a meatball stand and hung out at a bowling alley in Brooklyn. Normal things that a person might like to do after returning to their hometown after an intense trip abroad. But Dr. Spencer started running a high fever and was soon diagnosed with an Ebola virus infection.
Despite most reports suggesting that he had interacted with only a handful of people since becoming symptomatic, The Gutter, the bowling alley visited by Dr. Spencer, was forced to close down for two days and underwent a mass disinfection. The Meatball Shop remained open but was host to a PR stunt in which the city’s mayor visited for a meal in front of a host of cameras to prove to the general public it was safe. Which of course both of these places should be. There is nothing about the pathogenesis of Ebola that suggests we can catch it from a bowling ball or a restaurant table. Indeed the virus can barely survive for long outside the body, especially on hard, dry surfaces.
Hysterical news reporting of disease is nothing new. This time, like many other times before, it has been served up with a dollop of xenophobia. The problem, almost ignored when it is abroad and confined to countries that barely register on the Western consciousness, is treated like an unmitigated disaster when it hits home shores. Like the wave of homophobia that emerged in the wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the early ’80s, the tabloid media emphasis is on minimizing personal risk rather than pressuring organizations such as the UN and the WHO to act on the virus itself. We are encouraged to shut our borders, be suspicious, be vigilant, and most importantly, be afraid.
If there is something that feels different this time around, it’s the social media factor. In 2009 when swine flu panic was at its peak, we were all on Facebook, but fewer of us were active on Twitter. The surges of popularity in micro-media over the past few years have completely changed the way we consume and digest news, but also the speed at which stories spread.
Take the case of this video, which was recorded in a Chilean hospital a few weeks ago. The announcement you hear roughly translates as: “Can I have your attention, please. We have a patient who is suspected to have Ebola. Please leave the room and go to another hospital.” After the patient who took this video posted it on YouTube, it received almost 140,000 views. Soon the story migrated to Twitter, where the hashtag #EbolaChile was used over 200,000 times. All this happened incredibly fast and internationally, even though it was later revealed that the suspected Ebola was actually a case of malaria. Indeed, it has not gone unnoticed that the Ebola news is spreading faster than the virus itself.
But when things are over-egged on Twitter it only ever results in topic fatigue and silliness. Recently, actress Anne Hathaway was accused of refusing to shake an Argentinian journalist’s hand due to fear of contracting the virus. Others are making mockery of the intense US media coverage, with some users suggesting that “EBoLa could be the name of an obnoxious Manhattan neighborhood” or that “the only part of the Ebola guy that upsets me is how rich his social life seems in comparison.”
With the fast pace of social media reporting, topics that have had everyone enraged on one day can be forgotten the next. But whilst it’s easy to laugh at the jokes made at the expense of the media hysteria in the US, for the people of the West African countries most affected it is a genuine threat, and it’s not going away.
Organizations like the CDC are doing a good job of keeping up sensible dialogue about Ebola by producing factsheets on the disease and its transmission. These are clearly designed to alleviate fears about how the virus has been spread without shying away from the facts of how it is affecting the West African countries hit by the epidemic. The UN has been providing updates on the current situation, and what they are doing to combat the spread of the disease whilst the WHO have tweeted audio files from their recent press conference. The challenge for these organizations is that there is a lot of repetition in the messages that they have to send out. The advice about the virus is quite basic and in order for them to communicate this effectively they have to find new and interesting ways to dress up the facts, so as not to appear repetitive.
When developing our own disease awareness initiatives we can learn from the social media reaction to Ebola. Twitter can be a maelstrom of misinformation and flippancy, and it is important to provide clear, concise and meaningful content such as infographics and video. Although rather than share PDFs, like the organizations mentioned above, we should think about content that is easily viewable and sharable within a Twitter client. Most importantly we should remember that it’s easy for a story to get lost in a medium that moves as fast as social. Bitesize content should be deployed regularly to keep up the momentum, and we need to find creative ways of saying the same messages in different ways so we make our point without switching off our audience.
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