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Social media can spread conspiracy theories. Can it also work to solve health misinformation? New alliance hopes to flip paradigm

The alliance is starting out by supporting research into how social media can be leveraged to increase confidence in and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines.
By Mallory Hackett
11:38 am
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Photo by Zoran Mircetic from Getty Images

A group of organizations across the technology, healthcare, global development and academic sectors are convening on a new initiative that hopes to advance public understanding of how social media and behavioral sciences can be used to improve public health globally.

Called the Alliance for Advancing Health Online, the project’s partners include Bay Area Global Health Alliance, the CDC Foundation, Facebook, the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, Merck, Sabin Vaccine Institute, the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the World Bank and the World Health Organization.

“Social media is a powerful, constantly evolving tool that is shaping opinions and behaviors across the globe,” Dr. Heidi Larson, the head of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in a statement. “The Alliance will help us build a deeper understanding of the dynamics of health-related engagement online and investigate new ways the global community can use social media to improve health.”

At first the initiative will focus on supporting research into how social media and online platforms can be leveraged to increase confidence in and uptake of COVID-19 and routine vaccinations around the world. 

To do this, Facebook and Merck have each committed $20 million for the establishment of an independent Vaccine Confidence Fund. It will provide a number of grants to researchers around the world who are exploring how social media can address vaccine hesitancy and accessibility with the goal of producing “timely, practical applications, focused on historically excluded or marginalized communities globally.”

Facebook has already awarded grants to the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Bay Area Global Health Alliance for the development of a series of community discussions over the coming months.

While the alliance is setting its sights on COVID-19 vaccinations at its launch, it has plans to expand into vaccinations more generally to improve health outcomes.

WHY THIS MATTERS

Populations across the globe have been working to build up their immunity to COVID-19 over recent months, but continue to struggle with issues like skepticism and accessibility.

More than 2.3 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, according to The New York Times’ global vaccine tracker, but rates vary greatly from country to country.

At the high-end of the fully vaccinated spectrum are countries like Israel (57%), Chile (46%), the U.K. (43%) and the U.S. (43%). Elsewhere, a number of countries have yet to fully inoculate even 1% of their population, including Iraq, Vietnam and Nigeria.

While the availability and the accessibility of the vaccine have proven difficult obstacles, public vaccine acceptance adds another layer to the challenge. Rates of acceptance vary from place to place, with countries like Ecuador (97.0%), Malaysia (94.3%), Indonesia (93.3%) and China (91.3%) having high rates, and counties such as Kuwait (23.6%), Jordan (28.4%), Italy (53.7%), Russia (54.9%), Poland (56.3%), U.S. (56.9%) and France (58.9%) on the lower end, according to Vaccines.

This new alliance hopes to target communities where vaccine accessibility and acceptance are low to broadly improve health outcomes.

“It is critical to provide an infrastructure to provide equitable access to vaccines in marginalized communities, but equally important to work with communities to better understand how to provide meaningful information in the places that matter the most,” Dr. Lauren Smith, the chief health equity and strategy officer at the CDC Foundation, said in a statement. 

“Social media is changing the way we communicate, and this research endeavor will help answer important questions around how people are navigating, understanding and acting on information. Ultimately, we need to help people find accurate, research-based information through trusted voices so all people, especially those who have experienced persistent health inequities, can confidently make healthcare decisions.”

THE LARGER TREND

The Alliance for Advancing Health Online is the latest among a growing list of initiatives to improve vaccine rates.

Facebook has already taken steps independently from this, including helping users find and book vaccine appointments as well as providing state-specific vaccine information.

Others in the private sector have also lent a hand, including YouTube, Google, Amazon and Apple.

The U.S. government has also launched a number of projects as it works to vaccinate the public, including multilingual digital services to help Americans find COVID-19 vaccines and, more recently, partnerships with dating apps to boost vaccination rates in young people.

ON THE RECORD

“By bringing together public and private sector partners, we hope the Alliance will give us the ability to have a lasting impact on improving health behavior by leveraging social media and other digital technology,” Kang-Xing Jin, the head of health at Facebook, said in a statement.

“Together with partners, we’re seeing some promising results from our health work, which underscores the opportunity of the Alliance to better understand what’s working so it can be replicated and scaled.”

 

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