Social media is not just for fun, socializing, and commerce. Recent innovations, such as how conversations on Twitter have advanced the debate about global health, the use of Twitter and Facebook to register the satisfaction of medical patients, and many others, should change our preconceptions. More and more, these digital platforms are showing their value as vital agents in communication, saving lives, and serving as vehicles for advocacy and campaigning. It is leading to more efficacy and efficiency in human development and in global health. Such platforms facilitate health management, the exchange of ideas on a global scale, and improve the outcomes of actions as practitioners, experts, and ordinary people share experiences.
Historically, across the world, a person in a rural setting would likely not have had a tool with which he or she could communicate beyond the local community’s borders. They would not have had the opportunity to join global health discussions; too many geographic, social, and financial barriers would have stood in the way. And even in urban locations, conversations about global health have traditionally occurred in vertical silos: academic, government, among NGOs, in the private sector, or local communities.
But today, increasingly popular social media platforms are slowly penetrating even the most rural areas in the developing world. Where the Internet is available, communication is becoming more transparent and cost-effective than ever before. It has empowered individuals and has begun to erode such silos. Citizens now have the ability to reach out and engage directly with members of their local and central government, expert technicians in charge of programs which may concern them, and national or international figures with whom they wish to correspond.
At the global level, innovative ways to communicate through social media are helping millions of people connect in a simple, equitable fashion. Social media platforms give a powerful voice to the voiceless regardless of a person’s geographic location, educational background, gender, or socioeconomic status. All voices on social media platforms have value.
With distance no longer an obstacle, people who were isolated in remote parts of the world can now participate exchange their thoughts on global health issues that affect their communities, access information, and debate topics. All they need is their computer, tablet, affordable smartphone, or other IT tool. These modes of communication are strong advocacy tools at all levels.
I am a longtime pediatrician who served as Minister of Health in the Republic of Rwanda until 2016. In that role I was able to use social media to advocate for UNICEF and WHO to update their reporting on health outcomes in my country. But equally ordinary citizens can stand up on these social media platforms to discuss what matters to them, claim their rights, and be part of the change they want.
As democratic power is advanced through these mediums, accountability, equity, and dignity increase as each and every person’s view can reach far beyond their physical location. Their impact is felt by global leaders across many areas impacted by global health such as governance, finance, supply chain, monitoring and evaluation, clinical care, community engagement, and of course in individual and family settings.
Today, in some instances, social media also directly protects health when it is used as a tool to provide medical or social services. That, too, helps break the geographic, infrastructure, and human resource barriers faced by those living in remote, underserved areas.
Some social media platforms have developed free or low-cost disasters alert services around the world. The use of such systems by Facebook have played a vital role in recent weather disasters in India, for example. They send vital messages to alert people of danger and thus prevent harm. They also help monitor and organize rescues, and inform family and friends when individuals are safe. Preliminary data already documents the effectiveness of such social media disaster technology services.
Personally, I have also experienced how social media can serve as a tool for development, education, health management, and monitoring of the satisfaction of patients. By running #MinisterMonday every other Monday on Twitter or #allmylifeQs with the Salzburg Global Seminar for promoting palliative care in end of life, we have helped disseminate knowledge across the world. Social media serves as a creative space, one that encourages entrepreneurship and innovations. In that way it holds the promise to help increase the health and wealth status in a population. For this reason, I applaud the discussions at Techonomy Health about putting a high priority on how technology could address the pressing needs of global health.
Beyond communication and the exchange of ideas, social media is also a valuable tool for research in global health.
Although we need to acknowledge that there are still limitations, research through population polling can be done easily through these platforms and can paint a quick, far-reaching picture of a population and its perspectives.
Campaigning and fundraising are also simplified through social media, providing immediate access to a global audience in a cost-effective manner. Local projects as well as the most reputable big players in global health are campaigning with social media platforms. One example is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s #RedNose4Kids campaign or the African telecommunication companies in 2015, fundraising using social media to help the African Union fund the fight against Ebola.
From life-saving communication and health management to the open exchange of ideas, to research, fundraising and organizing social or humanitarian actions, it is clear that social media has become a valuable tool for global health.
We need to create adequate regulation, because without it, and without ethics literacy, the very power of social media could harm the vulnerable we want to protect.
In this light, I call on each and everyone who has access to telecommunication to think out of the box and join the movement for using social media for good. It is just a click away, so there is a moral imperative to use the network we are linked to for improving the world in which we live.
We need to use these cost-effective, powerful platforms to contribute to health management, to positive change, social action, entrepreneurship, solidarity, and human development. That way all of us—no matter our location, socioeconomic status, identity, or background—can simply click to post a message and help make the world a better place.
From a person in a rural village to the head of a government sector, we can all come equally to the table through these platforms. We can share our unique perspectives, needs, and proposals in constructive discussions, and advance the global issues that matter. By using social media as a tool, we can continue to empower people in developing countries and accelerate their country’s journey to join the healthier and wealthier, developed world. Together, we can use social media platforms to step closer to the equitable world we all deserve.
Dr. Agnes Binagwaho is vice chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity. Formerly, she was the minister of health of Rwanda.