Via The Atlantic, an important article on public health and social media, despite its reference to me as some kind of authority: When Epidemics Go Viral. Excerpt:
Vietnam is a one-party state that has responded efficiently to many natural disasters and health emergencies. During a 2005 outbreak of avian flu, for example, the Vietnamese agriculture minister famously ate chicken on national television in an effort to calm public fears about widespread poultry infections.
But when the 2014 measles scandal broke, millions of Vietnamese were using Facebook, compared to almost none just a few years earlier. And the government, which sporadically blocks the network, was unable to extinguish a Facebook-fuelled bush-fire of fear, anger and recrimination that swept the nation.
Much of the criticism landed at the feet of the health minister, Nguyen Thi Kim Tien, who refused to call the deaths an ‘outbreak’ even as the child death toll approached 130. Even before the measles crisis the health ministry had been on the defensive, following a string of previous scandals at public hospitals that had included mistaken diagnoses, faulty vaccinations and cases of bribery in surgery wards.
So when Tien said that only 25 deaths were directly attributable to measles—while doctors at a Hanoi hospital said scores had died from measles-related complications—many ordinary Vietnamese viewed her comments as brazen obfuscation.
“The public saw a lot of people dying,” recalls Dinh Duc Hoang, a contributing editor at VnExpress, a Vietnamese online newspaper. Ministry officials, he says, did publicly explain their epidemiological rationale for not declaring an outbreak, “but not enough, especially on social media,” he says. “People didn’t understand and thought the ministry was trying to hide the outbreak.”
Since the turn of this century, the rise of online search engines and social media applications has allowed ordinary people around the world to find information during public-health scares at an ever-faster pace. The change has been especially dramatic in the Asia Pacific region, a global epicentre of internet users, smartphone sales, and also infectious-disease outbreaks.
This new environment presents a complex mix of opportunities and challenges for health officials. On one hand, increased public engagement during a health crisis can allow officials to communicate more directly with citizens.
But every new online platform is also a conduit for spreading criticism or misinformation. The rise of social media makes it “harder for governments to shut down the flow of information, but the information itself may be unreliable,” says Crawford Kilian, a Vancouver-based writer who covers the politics of public health.