Can Social Media Change the World?

RIMG_0092ebecca Shore is the founder of Social Media for Global Health, an interagency working group that seeks to bring global health and development professionals together to connect and share experiences around the use of social media to promote the messages & products. She currently manages many different social media projects, mainly the Knowledge for Health (K4Health) project, as a Communications Specialist at the Center for Communication Programs at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

I often wonder the value of the work I do to “save the world.” We have been taught since we were children that we as individuals can create impact on a grand scale. The millions of campaigns on Earth Day or from Smokey the Bear puts the onus on the individual as a change agent. This idealist notion clouded my view of the impact I might have on the world.

As I move forward in my public health career I lean more towards helping people rather than on this abstract, superhero concept of saving the world. I know I’m not alone. Most people I’ve met who work in a helping career profession got involved to save the world and save lives.

Not to be too jaded, but sitting in an office in the United States sending out a tweet or an online promotional material, I started to wonder if the big change I hoped to achieve would ever happen. I began to value local impact; so, you may wonder where social media comes in to play.

Before the 1990s the majority of people relied on mail or telephones to communicate with people out of geographical reach. This required some prior knowledge of the person or a more deliberate and calculated effort. You had to have an address or a phone number and often the communication was with a small number of people in a specific community or segment of society. The contact was limited and the results were biased. The funding required to mail them a letter or the cost of the airtime used to make the phone call determined how much work could be done.

In the past twenty years this idea has completly changed. We have the ability to communicate freely with people from all over the world. With the introduction of things like Email, instant messenger, Skype, Google Hangouts, Google Chat, Facebook, Twitter, and many more, different people from all over the world have the ability to connect with voice, text, chat, and video to anyone for free.

In the world of public health these technologies can break down previous barriers when working in the developing world. Social media allows for target populations to be involved in every step of the program planning process. It enables a small NGO in Nigeria to connect with a global organization in Washington, DC. Grassroots efforts can find support. These technologies create a push and pull in the world of communication that has unlimited possibilities.

A recent article from The Guardian – Poverty Matters blog offers many convincing examples of how social media was used to accomplish great change in the world of development. However, it also highlights that it’s too soon to tell how effective the use of social media has been to achieve development goals.

On a regular basis, working in social media, I see how small the world has become. I can send out one tweet that has a reach of over 8,000 Twitter users from all over the world. Social media campaigns like the UN Foundation’s “I Was Here” campaign for World Humanitarian Day which reached over 1 billion people and the controversial KONY 2012 video which was seen by over 95 million people, have the ability to tap into the world as advocates for a particular cause.  On the K4Health Facebook Page, one of the platforms I manage, I’m constantly amazed that the US is not at the top of the list of countries that like and interact on our page. Frequently I receive direct messages to the K4Health page asking for advice or to access resources from all over the world. This was not possible years ago. With mobile access to social media the actual reach of these platforms is astronomical.

From my perspective, social media can’t save the world on its own, but the technology that is being created and changed everyday gets us closer to the world working together for a greater change. If a Facebook post I publish in Baltimore, Maryland has the ability to be commented on within a few seconds by a health professional or a student in Egypt, than we have tools to make the world a bit smaller and invoke change on a larger scale.


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