How the CDC uses social media to inform Americans about Ebola outbreak

Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is decontaminated by Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders staff after visiting their Ebola treatment unit, ELWA 3. Photographer: Athalia Christie

The threat of the spread of Ebola has led many Americans to learn more and stay up to date on the outbreak in West Africa. Many are turning to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US government’s body charged with responding to public health issues. Now that social media has become one of the ways that people get information and news, the CDC’s platforms have an added importance when it comes to reaching the US public.

Attention turned to the CDC when two medical workers responding to the Ebola outbreak were brought back to the US for treatment. Dr. Ken Brantly and Nancy Writebol were treated by medical staff at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital. Atlanta is also where the CDC happens to be headquartered.

Questions poured in when it was announced the two would be brought into the US. People were concerned about the potential spread of Ebola into the US and why the two would be brought home for treatment.

“We look at misconceptions as evidence that we need to communicate about certain areas and be more proactive through photos, infographics and more,” said Nathan Huebner, Web and Social Media Lead for the CDC Center for Global Health, to Humanosphere.

A major misconception is how the Ebola virus is spread. Despite the fact that it cannot be spread through the air, some blogs and other sources are making claims that it is already happening. Presenting information in a variety of ways helps to dispel wrong information. There are also misconceptions about what the CDC is doing for the current Ebola outbreak.

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“A lot of people are unaware that the CDC is involved in the response,” said Huebner.

One strategy has been to use experts to answer questions from people. Events like #CDCchat allow the organization to address concerns directly, dispel myths about certain issues and stay in touch with Americans. Huebner says it allows people to get answers for more difficult questions and for the CDC to engage in in more ways.

The CDC Global Health twitter account is one of many area-specific accounts that the CDC manages. It is so that people can get the information they need in the most efficient manner, explained Carol Crawford, Chief of Electronic Media at the CDC.

“We see it as a way for the CDC to step in as a credible source,” said Crawford to Humanosphere.

The need for the organization to use social media during a public health emergency became apparent during the swine flu (H1N1) epidemic in 2009. As the virus made its way into the US and started to spread across the country, people wanted more information about it. Many turned to social media.

The CDC Emergency Twitter account had only a few thousand followers prior to the epidemic. In a short period more than 1 million people followed the account and now it carries roughly 1.58 million followers.

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“It highlighted how much people really do use social media to get information,” said Crawford.

Five years later, the CDC social media team was ready when an outbreak of Ebola in December 2013 became a regional problem in roughly half of a year. Social media posts were crafted to put the CDC in the position as being the resource for Americans to find credible, fact-based information.

The social media team is also monitoring conversations. It is a way to stay involved in what people are saying about the outbreak and where there are information gaps. CDC head Dr Tom Frieden has also embraced Twitter as a way to share information about the outbreak and other areas of the CDC’s work.

Despite the fact that US interest has waned since the arrival of two patients with Ebola, the CDC continues to provide the latest on what is happening. Its account on Flickr documents the its work via photos. Many have been taken by CDC detectives, the people who are on the frontlines of the response.

“We are going to keep telling the story for as long as this continues being a public health problem,” said Crawford. “We want to update people on our work and we want to monitor and respond to any misinformation by providing credible information.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.