BMJ Glob Health: The role of social media in public health crises

8 January, 2024

(With thanks to HIFA country representative Irina Ibraghimova and LRC Network)

Citation, abstract and comment from me below.


Terry K et al. The role of social media in public health crises caused by infectious disease: a scoping review.

BMJ Glob Health. 2023 Dec 28;8(12):e013515. doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2023-013515.


IMPORTANCE: The onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic highlighted the increasing role played by social media in the generation, dissemination and consumption of outbreak-related information. OBJECTIVE: The objective of the current review is to identify and summarise the role of social media in public health crises caused by infectious disease, using a five-step scoping review protocol.

EVIDENCE REVIEW: Keyword lists for two categories were generated: social media and public health crisis. By combining these keywords, an advanced search of various relevant databases was performed to identify all articles of interest from 2000 to 2021, with an initial retrieval date of 13 December 2021. A total of six medical and health science, psychology, social science and communication databases were searched: PubMed, Web of Science, Scopus, Embase, PsycINFO and CNKI. A three-stage screening process against inclusion and exclusion criteria was conducted.

FINDINGS: A total of 338 studies were identified for data extraction, with the earliest study published in 2010. Thematic analysis of the role of social media revealed three broad themes: surveillance monitoring, risk communication and disease control. Within these themes, 12 subthemes were also identified. Within surveillance monitoring, the subthemes were disease detection and prediction, public attitude and attention, public sentiment and mental health. Within risk communication, the subthemes were health advice, information-seeking behaviour, infodemics/misinformation circulation, seeking help online, online distance education and telehealth. Finally, within disease control, the subthemes were government response, public behaviour change and health education information quality. It was clear that the pace of research in this area has gradually increased over time as social media has evolved, with an explosion in attention following the outbreak of COVID-19.

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: Social media has become a hugely powerful force in public health and cannot be ignored or viewed as a minor consideration when developing public health policy. Limitations of the study are discussed, along with implications for government, health authorities and individual users. The pressing need for government and health authorities to formalise evidence-based strategies for communicating via social media is highlighted, as well as issues for individual users in assessing the quality and reliability of information consumed on social media platforms.

COMMENT (NPW): The authors conclude: 'Social media has become a hugely powerful and ubiquitous force in public health and must be purposively considered by government and public health authorities when developing public health policy'. Clearly there must be a commitment by government to support evidence-informed public policy, and mechanisms to prevent policymakers from undermining such policy. It's notable that several senior policymakers have themselves used social media for undermining policy. In their concluding comments, the authors note: 'Also lacking is an understanding of the ways that individual social media users can best engage with and filter information from a variety of online sources to make well-informed choices around health behaviours.'

HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of HIFA (Healthcare Information For All), a global health community that brings all stakeholders together around the shared goal of universal access to reliable healthcare information. HIFA has 20,000 members in 180 countries, interacting in four languages and representing all parts of the global evidence ecosystem. HIFA is administered by Global Healthcare Information Network, a UK-based nonprofit in official relations with the World Health Organization. Email: