Missing the Mark

Ebola Tweets Are Missing the Target

Social media allows West Africans to discuss the deadly Ebola crisis in real time, but those in the gravest danger lack the technology to participate.

08.03.14 10:30 AM ET

One Twitter user in Cologne, Germany tweets about the importance of Ebola victims staying hydrated. A second user, in Lagos, Nigeria, discusses Ebola safety measures, and a third tweeter in the Ghanaian capital of Accra urges fellow West Africans to avoid contact with the infected. 

Despite the current Ebola outbreak’s vast imprint on Twitter, and the digital awareness campaigns that have sprouted as a result, there’s a fundamental problem —many of the West African populations in the gravest danger can’t access the advice, nor can they participate in the conversation. 

The crisis – which began in early 2014, and has since claimed over 600 lives—reached a climax when the virus crept into Nigeria on July 20 by way of an American citizen. And as the outbreak deepens and advances across more borders (including the U.S.), chatter on Twitter has also spread swiftly. But those at the center of the crisis—like rural villagers in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—aren’t online, World Health Organization officials said. And so those closest to the ghastly virus remain deaf to hashtags, and silent.  

“Twitter penetration and use of electronic media in general is much greater in developed countries than in West Africa,” Gregory Härtl, WHO’s head of Public Relations and Social Media, told The Daily Beast. “Twitter is an effective tool, but primarily among developed country audiences.” 

Desmond Diggs is the founder of Teach for Liberia, an organization that provides young Liberians with educational opportunities. Diggs, currently in the United States, has watched the crisis unfold on social media, but notes Twitter is not an accurate window, nor a particularly powerful tool, in this case. He said some current social media efforts “border on token activism.” 

“In my experience, the people who are most at risk have little to no access to social media,” Diggs told The Daily Beast. “Social media sites give the appearance of massive engagement the world all over, but this is not the case. If my family lives on a few dollars a day, then bush meat is a staple part of our diet and the social media sensitization is likely a poor means of trying to educate me and my community.”

Diggs noted friends and family in the region are disconnecting from one another, rather than participating in an inclusive, albeit digital, conversation. Residents in Liberia are cloistering themselves and shuttering their businesses in an attempt to “wait it out,” Diggs said—which can cripple the economy. “If ever there was a time to see past our ethnic, tribal, religious, and political inclinations, this is that time,” he added.

There are authentic instances on Twitter of how West Africans are reacting. Alan Jallah, a 21-year-old student living in Monrovia, Liberia, recently tweeted his apprehension about hailing a cab amid the worst Ebola outbreak in history. “Liberians with smartphones and Internet share information about the Ebola virus everyday on Facebook and Twitter,” Jallah told The Daily Beast. “It’s the only thing being discussed in Liberia right now.”

Emeka Izeze, Managing Director of Nigerian newspaper The Guardian, told The Daily Beast that Twitter has been a useful tool for journalists in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city. “Twitter has created a lot of awareness,” Izeze said.

But folks like Jallah and Izeze don’t represent those in the gravest danger, according to Juliet Ibrahim, an actress based in Ghana whose nonprofit battles kidney cancer in West Africa.   

“Not everyone is online, most especially in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea,” Ibrahim told The Daily Beast. “Most of the people out there that will be caught eating [potentially dangerous bush meat] do not have access to the Internet. A lot of villagers are more at risk than the educated ones living in the city.”

Twitter’s limited capabilities in this crisis aren’t lost on the WHO. Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO communications officer currently based Guinea, is working to contain the outbreak. Jasarevic and others are tasked with social mobilization in rural areas, a process that eschews digital efforts and relies on more personal outreach.

“Here, you go through traditional leaders, and go to the main square in the village and explain what Ebola is,” Jasarevic said. Some 120 WHO experts are currently supplementing the WHO’s West African staff in education efforts, he added.

Jasarevic noted social mobilization—whether done on Twitter or atop a soapbox—is only a part of the solution. “There are [several] strategies,” he said, emphasizing the importance of treatment centers, disease surveillance, and proper healthcare training.