If you want to get the word out on Facebook, you use pictures like this.
In it, 40-year-old Patrick Sawyer, an American citizen originally from Liberia, wears a black X-Men T-shirt and cradles two of his three daughters in his arms. Both of them stare up at him with the wonderment you expect between a parent and a child.
The image of Sawyer, who died in Liberia after contracting Ebola, is the cover photo of a new Facebook group called Concerned Africans Against Ebola. The page hosts a community working to deliver reliable information about the disease spreading across West Africa, "May his soul rest in perfect peace," the organization wrote below his picture, as updates about the outbreak scroll below.
The largest Ebola outbreak ever—killing over 1,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone so far—is also the first major outbreak in the era of social media. Facebook and Twitter are the dominant social platforms in cell-phone-saturated West Africa, which means that fighting the disease often means fighting misconceptions, one Tweet or Facebook comment at a time. At a time when at-risk villagers may fear doctors who are trying to find and contain the virus, bad information can be worse than no information at all.
Bad medical science is always drifting around social media: from a Facebook friend talking about how to lose weight using body wraps, to deadly nutrition advice on thinspo Tumblrs, to anti-vaxxers sowing doubt on Twitter. And false cures and panic-inducing conspiracy theories have historically followed sudden outbreaks of diseases like HIV. The conversations about Ebola combine these two trends.
On Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, #KickEbolaOut is now a rallying cry. West Africans living in the U.S. and in their home countries have created Facebook groups or transformed existing ones into tools for public awareness and advocacy, posting infographics on Ebola prevention and sharing information about local rallies and fundraisers. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) work with these volunteer groups to disseminate as much info as possible.
But for every post pushing true information, you can find another about saltwater baths and kola as supposed cures and rumors that poisoned water wells, not Ebola, are sickening the population. The social media conversation becomes a scrum, with experts, humanitarians, politicians, and regular people all trying to be heard.
There are at least four common threads of misinformation. The first fraudulent cure is sometimes sourced to an African professor who argued in 1999 that kola nut—a bitter West African fruit containing caffeine—can cure both the flu and Ebola.
Fifteen years later, the false information continues its zombie march from hopeful reader to hopeful reader.
"Bitter Kola Nut to Cure Ebola," writes one Facebook user. "Kola Nut stopped #Ebola virus in Lab experiments" writes a self-described "Futurist Techpreneur in love with all things tech and Africa" on Twitter. (Neither Twitter nor Facebook would comment about Ebola-related misinformation spreading on their platform.)
Authenticity often trumps all. On Facebook, "God’s language of repentance" has caused the outbreak and not bushmeat, which the UN warns can be contaminated. The off-the-books sale of bushmeat is probably a multi-million dollar industry, and many West Africans are no more eager to give it up than Americans are eager to give up gas-guzzling vehicles that are accelerating climate change.
"Please understand that for centuries our ancestors have been eating all kinds of bush meat and nothing like this had happened," writes one Liberian Facebook user, nicely illustrating how a lifestyle that feels safe and established can trump scientific evidence.
(Regardless of how long rural West Africans have been eating bush meat, researchers believe it became a high-risk practice in the mid-1970s when Ebola first emerged.)
Bad information on social media is sometimes fed by West African media running stories which are poorly sourced or which are "covering the controversy" the same way American media does.
After a Nigerian state leader said that saltwater baths are the "magical prescription" for Ebola, Twitter was rife with posts about how people should both bathe and gargle with the solution. The claims have become so rampant that the WHO pinned a tweet on August 8 on its official page debunking the rumor.
Donnish Pewee, director of a Liberian organization called Youth in Technology Arts Network (YOTAN) that is doing on-the-ground outreach, said stories about people allegedly poisoning water wells are contributing to misperceptions that Ebola is not what’s sickening the Liberian population.
"Some people are now taking the virus seriously and others don’t. When we ask them do you believe Ebola exists, some say no," Pewee said.
As misinformation spreads among certain communities, it is often picked up on blogs, forums and websites like Naij.com, a Nigerian news source that has nearly 2.4 million Facebook likes. Or it spreads through citizen journalism outlets like CNN’s iReport.
"We are seeing increasing use of social media in Africa," says Sari Setiogi, a WHO spokesperson. "They might not be all the people who are directly affected by Ebola, but they can spread our public health messages to their friends and family."
Craig Manning, a CDC health communications specialist, said the organization has worked diligently to put out accurate information. "In situations like these you have two choices: You can refute the rumors one at a time or you can change the information environment with new, accurate scientific information," he said. "When we have gotten the messages out there, it prevents the ability for rumors to thrive."
That means hosting chats on Twitter, but it also means focusing on the old media that drives the conversation: CDC experts have appeared on local West African radio stations, and in the affected countries it has distributed posters and tri-folds and done in-person outreach on Ebola prevention, transmission and signs and symptoms.
Western experts often have a chasm of credibility to cross with West African audiences. Locals who share, retweet, or host conversations with those experts are key to the process.
On Twitter, @EbolaFacts retweets information from the CDC and WHO alongside users with names like Tolu and Amara. Nigeria-based @EbolaAlert held a Twitter chat on Aug. 18 focused on debunking Ebola myths. On YouTube, you’ll find Liberians posting videos on proper handwashing. There’s even a music video called "Ebola in Town" by a rapper in Liberia named Shadow. The video has nearly 100,000 views and cautions against kissing and shaking hands and implores people not to eat bush meat.
Meanwhile, West Africans in the U.S. are using Facebook as a fundraising tool. BAND, a Liberian advocacy organization, has created an Ebola awareness audio announcement in Kpelle, one of the country’s native languages. It is both promoting the audio on Facebook and asking for donations to keep the ad running on a local Liberian radio station.
The Grand Gedeh Association in the Americas, a Liberian group with thousands of Facebook followers and tens of thousand of members, also created an audio announcement in native languages that it is starting to share via text message.
"The CDC and WHO can do as much as they can, but we have to help them in the process," said Tillman Collins, the group’s president. "We want to consolidate efforts and get the message out there."
Manning said the CDC has begun to use West Africans in the U.S. as part of its communications strategy. An "untapped resource until now," he said the CDC has done conference calls with Sierra Leoneans and Liberians where some participants have recorded the entire meeting.
"They’re taking the information that comes from the presentation and conference calls and sending that back to their families," Manning said.
Perhaps foremost among the Americans sending love and good information back home is Decontee Sawyer, Patrick Sawyer’s 34-year-old widow and co-founder of the Concerned Africans Against Ebola Facebook group. She put her husband and daughters atop the page and has made herself a public face of the epidemic, sharing her family’s cautionary tale: When Patrick fled from Liberia to Nigeria in search of better care, he brought the virus with him, with deadly consequences.
Her interviews with national news outlets—about how Patrick contracted the disease when he was caring for his sick sister in Liberia, about his fateful decision to fly to Lagos, and about how to keep Ebola at bay—are all over the group’s page. Her story has been constantly on Twitter almost every day since July 29, four days after Patrick’s death.
She said her awareness efforts will not stop as long as people are still dying from Ebola. "I wanted people to put a face to Ebola. That it isn’t something that happened over there. Look how it’s affecting this family here."
[Ebola Sign: Sergey Uryadnikov via Shutterstock]