How to responsibly engage with social media during disasters


A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, social media’s role in the rapid spread of information is undeniable. From the beginning, Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, MD, first raised the alarm to his classmates through WeChat, a messaging and social media app. Since that time, individuals, groups, organizations, government agencies, and mass media outlets have used social media to share ideas and disseminate information. Individuals check in on loved ones and update others on their own safety. Networks of clinicians discuss patient presentations, new therapeutics, management strategies, and institutional protocols. Multiple organizations including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization use Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter accounts to provide updates on ongoing efforts and spread public health messaging.

Social media icons on phone

Unfortunately, not all information is trustworthy. Social media outlets have been used to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories, and to promote false treatments. Google, YouTube, and Facebook are now actively trying to reduce the viral spread of misleading information and to block hoaxes. With the increasing amount of news and information consumed and disseminated via social media, clinicians need to critically appraise information presented on those platforms, and to be familiar with how to use them to disseminate informed, effective, and responsible information.

Appraisal of social media content

Traditional scholarly communication exists in many forms and includes observations, anecdotes, perspectives, case reports, and research. Each form involves differing levels of academic rigor and standards of evaluation. Electronic content and online resources pose a unique challenge because there is no standardized method for assessing impact and quality. Proposed scales for evaluation of online resources such as Medical Education Translational Resources: Impact and Quality (METRIQ),1 Academic Life in Emergency Medicine Approved Instructional Resources (AliEM AIR) scoring system,2 and the Social Media Index3 are promising and can be used to guide critical appraisal of social media content.

Dr. Dennis Ren, Children's National Hospital, Washington

Dr. Dennis Ren

The same skepticism and critical thinking applied to traditional resources should be applied when evaluating online resources. The scales listed above include questions such as:

  • How accurate is the data presented and conclusions drawn?
  • Does the content reflect evidence-based medicine?
  • Has the content undergone an editorial process?
  • Who are the authors and what are their credentials?
  • Are there potential biases or conflicts of interest present?
  • Have references been cited?
  • How does this content affect/change clinical practice?

While these proposed review metrics may not apply to all forms of social media content, clinicians should be discerning when consuming or disseminating online content.

Strategies for effective communication on social media

In addition to appraising social media content, clinicians also should be able to craft effective messages on social media to spread trustworthy content. The CDC offers guidelines and best practices for social media communication4,5 and the WHO has created a framework for effective communications.6 Both organizations recognize social media as a powerful communication tool that has the potential to greatly impact public health efforts.

Dr. Joelle Simpson, Children's National Hospital, Washington

Dr. Joelle Simpson

Some key principles highlighted from these sources include the following:

  • Identify an audience and make messages relevant. Taking time to listen to key stakeholders within the target audience (individuals, health care providers, communities, policy-makers, organizations) allows for better understanding of baseline knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs that may drive concerns and ultimately helps to tailor the messaging.
  • Make messages accessible. Certain social media platforms are more often utilized for specific target audiences. Verbiage used should take into account the health literacy of the audience. A friendly, professional, conversational tone encourages interaction and dialogue.
  • Engage the audience by offering something actionable. Changing behavior is a daunting task that involves multiple steps. Encouraging behavioral changes initially at an individual level has the potential to influence community practices and policies.
  • Communication should be timely. It should address current and urgent topics. Keep abreast of the situation as it evolves to ensure messaging stays relevant. Deliver consistent messaging and updates.
  • Sources must be credible. It is important to be transparent about expertise and honest about what is known and unknown about the topic.
  • Content should be understandable. In addition to using plain language, visual aids and real stories can be used to reinforce messages.

Use social media responsibly

Clinicians have a responsibility to use social media to disseminate credible content, refute misleading content, and create accurate content. When clinicians share health-related information via social media, it should be appraised skeptically and crafted responsibly because that message can have profound implications on public health. Mixed messaging that is contradictory, inconsistent, or unclear can lead to panic and confusion. By recognizing the important role of social media in access to information and as a tool for public health messaging and crisis communication, clinicians have an obligation to consider both the positive and negative impacts as messengers in that space.

Dr. Ren is a pediatric emergency medicine fellow at Children’s National Hospital, Washington. Dr. Simpson is a pediatric emergency medicine attending and medical director of emergency preparedness of Children’s National Hospital. They do not have any disclosures or conflicts of interest. Email Dr. Ren and Dr. Simpson at [email protected].


1. AEM Educ Train. 2019;3(4):387-92.

2. Ann Emerg Med. 2016;68(6):729-35.

3. Ann Emerg Med. 2018;72(6):696-702.

4. CDC Guide to Writing for Social Media.

5. The Health Communicator’s Social Media Toolkit.

6. WHO Strategic Communications Framework for effective communications.

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