Friday, 31 October 2014

How Social Media is destroying Ebola disaster response support

In December of 2013, The Republic of Guinea in West Africa was experiencing a typical winter season of weather. The fall heavy rains had subsided and everything was as normal as could be in all four regions of the country. Normal is a relative term. The region had continually faced civil war along with economic and ethnic instability. When the first cases of Ebola struck, the country's infrastructure and leadership was not aware of the scale of the impending disaster. This too was a normal. The World Health Organization (WHO) mobilized regional resources believing that it could prevent an epidemic quickly. It was not alarmed and nor did it believe the situation warranted an elevated response. The world would soon find out this was not the case.

The WHO response was not sufficient and nor was the threat of Ebola spreading through West Africa believed. Compounding the problem was how the local communities throughout Guinea did not trust western experts. Even if the population trusted them, spreading the alarm to the outlying regions would prove difficult. Telecommunications in all forms, telephone, mobile devices and internet access are not widespread or economical for its citizens outside of the capital of Conarky. Ebola quickly spread to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to the WHO, over 13,000 cases and almost 5,000 people have died. 

The response in late August (when an independent outbreak occurred in the Republic of Congo) Ebola predictions ignited a renewed effort to deploy resources by the United Nations to the region. Resources began to ramp up across the board, WHO, UNOCHA, UNICEF, WFP were on deck along with individual nations including the United States, United Kingdom and others, preparing direct intervention measures with medical teams, equipment and logistics support. By mid-October, over one billion dollars has been budgeted by the United States alone. 

Crisis and Disaster Management agencies have long used social media to make people aware of a crisis and how a disaster event is being managed. Social media has been heralded as valuable tool in supporting operations, distribution of critical information that generates awareness and alert notifications in real time. Historical evidence clearly supports these facts. Social media has saved lives and supported post disaster recovery goals in and outside of government support resources.  However, during this crisis, it is having the opposite effect. 

West African access to social media applications and tools are not available to the same degree as they are in North America. Africa is a continent that is just beginning to build and be able to afford communications services we take for granted. Telecommunications platforms, suppliers and commercial services are primarily limited to the capitals of each country, Conakry, Monrovia and Freetown and is very expensive relative to the average annual income. Distributing Ebola warnings across the region using social media is impractical. 

When the first Ebola cases landed in the U.S., the volume of social media stories, blogs and articles unleashed on the Internet skyrocketed. The sense of fear began in the heartland of western nations. Between October 1st and 31st, over 25 million tweets have been posted with very few days hitting less than 500,000 / day, which declined after Dallas patient Mr. Duncan died.

Most of these tweets are retweets of inaccurate information or intend on spreading fear. It has proved effective in doing so. So fearful, it has impacted the foreign policy of three nations that historically never cut off humanitarian aid; AustraliaIsrael, and Canada by halting all humanitarian operations and travel visas to and from the region. 

And then social media lit the fuse in the war of words. First, Medical Sans Frontier refused financial support from Australia, fueling viscous debates on Facebook and Twitter after Australia halted direct medical staff support operations to West Africa. It did not take long for other nations to follow suit. 

Social media is not read in West Africa. Little do they know, it is hurting the regions ability to recover with resources that traditionally send aid in times of need. Social Media is destroying humanitarian aid to all three nations affected.

Supporter of banning Visa's to Canada from West Africa
Tweets like this one should be helpful. They aren't.
Tweets that spread fear faster than those of empathy and support.
Tweets with keyword Ebola Oct 1 - 30th

Analysis of approximately 700,000 tweets (including retweets) between Oct 28th to the 30th (48 hours) reveals over 85% of tweets published are of little educational value or relevance to supporting relief needs. Most contain inaccurate Ebola information or have political statements. Even the tweets that ARE of value and accurate scientific medical facts are generally worthless to those in the affected areas because of the lack of access to the Internet. Social media is turning out to be disaster for West Africa and its citizens. And they have no way to fight back. 

West Africa Ebola resources:

CDC - Center for Disease Control

WHO - World Health Organization

To read Part II of this series, click HERE. You will have to reread this post afterwards. The trap has been set.


  1. This is really astounding when you consider the financial implications. Even better in the report was that 60 percent of doctors saying social media improves the quality of care. buy instagram likes

  2. Thank you for this! I really enjoy your posts like these.. they're so helpful and I always learn something new! Does Mobile Spy Track BBM