The 2014 Ebola virus epidemic that originated in West Africa and spread to other parts of the globe was the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. During this period, a frightened public turned to social media and internet search engines for information and to share news of the outbreak. According to a team of international researchers, including iSchool Research Scientist Ian Brooks, understanding the social media activity around a health crisis, like the 2014 Ebola outbreak, can help health organizations improve their communication strategies and prevent misinformation and panic.
Their paper, "Fear on the networks: analyzing the 2014 Ebola outbreak," was published in December in Pan American Journal of Public Health (41, 2017). In addition to Brooks, researchers included lead author Marcelo D’Agostino (Department of Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis, Pan American Health Organization), Felipe Mejía (international consultant, Bogotá, Columbia), Myrna Marti and David Novillo-Ortiz (Department of Knowledge Management, Bioethics, and Research, Pan American Health Organization), and Gerardo de Cosio (Department of Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis, Pan American Health Organization).
The research team analyzed Twitter tweets, Facebook posts, and Google trends as well as other internet resources from March-November 2014. They found that in most cases, news agencies have more engagement with the public in social media than do health organizations. In addition, spikes in activity around a topic can be used to signal to health authorities an outbreak may be underway. They concluded that during an outbreak, health organizations need to not only improve their communication strategies but also to make sure that news agencies are using their communications as reporting sources.