Knowledge Translation in HealthWestern Health Sciences

The Network Effect: How to travel faster than fake news

How to travel faster than fake news

TL;DR: The message is not landing. The song is not going viral. Let’s take a step back.

“We’re dealing with an illness where there is no cure, no natural immunity, no vaccine, so the only tool that we have available is communication. We have to rely on public compliance,” says Josh Greenberg, director of Carleton’s school of journalism, sharing his perspectives alongside other researchers who are urging us to show humility, admit what we don’t know, and foster a two-way dialogue.

Our public health system was never designed to single-handedly deliver mass communications. Citizens and health officials alike are faced with the challenge of sorting through a sea of information, hoping the truth is cutting through the noise. It’s also important to recognize that this overwhelming volume of information isn’t random, it’s fed by demand. 

With the emergence of social media, we’ve learned that peoples’ interests are far more unique than we ever imagined. Consumers are more open to discovering new voices than relying on anointed ones. It's time for a network of community services and grassroots health organizations to step in and help carry key messages to the last mile of citizens. 

Data is already showing that COVID is disproportionately burdening racialized communities. Community organizations have been critical lifelines for these communities, and have the trusted networks to rapidly spread critical information. Organizations on the ground need support to make that happen - effective and engaging infographics, campaigns, and tweets do not design themselves.


In the last month, we've compiled these examples of grass-roots communications interventions that have successfully cut through the noise and made an impact.We need a network of coordinated and supported professionals to help spread awareness and accurate information about COVID.


 Ahmad Chamy, a data analyst and consultant, was a citizen looking to add value. His posts caught the attention of Zen Tharani, Executive Director of the Health Sector Information Management Division at the BC Ministry.

“Our aim is to engage, collaborate, and learn as we grow this tool to become the one stop shop that maps our province's health sector.” 

Together they produced a custom tool that helps turn big data into actionable insights for health system leaders. You can read more about their work here. Bringing more data leaders into public health communications can turn numbers into stories for Canadians, and also help health sector professionals have more effective internal conversations. This can reduce overwhelm and will continue to be core to public health communications moving forward. 


Samanta Krishnapillai, currently in her Masters for Health Information Sciences at Western University, saw a need for relatable content that promotes creativity, storytelling, and empathy rather than fear and panic. 

 “I wanted to create a meaningful volunteer experience that creates space for young people to learn and grow, while also contributing their health literacy, media and communications skills during a global pandemic”

The ONCOVID19 project is citizen science in action. Since June 2020, @ONCOVID19 has published 116 unique posts that present information in consumable bite-sized visual slideshows.  Her team of 80 volunteers research, design, and publish content to 1,300 followers. They employ influencer marketing tactics with 100 network partners to share posts and have reached up to 19,000 accounts in one week. Explore their content & follow along on Instagram here. 


Tom Hanks’ positive COVID test in March was a sobering moment for his global fanbase in the early days of the pandemic. Many things have changed since then, but one message has remained consistent: keeping 6 feet apart helps us stay safe. And as luck would have it, Hanks is exactly 6 feet tall, making him the perfect safety measurement tool. (And who wouldn’t listen to Tom Hanks?)

Public Inc, a social impact agency based in Toronto and New York, took a different approach at helping communities stay safe. Decals of Tom Hanks have appeared all around the City of Toronto, giving people a reason to smile while staying physically distanced from those around them. Read more about the campaign here.


We are seeing leaders across the health system harnessing the power of social media. COVID requires us to step beyond our current networks. Sharing knowledge has never been easier, but our mindset around how and where we share must also shift. LinkedIn has over 250 million active users, but only 1% share content on a weekly basis. 

Zen Tharani, Executive Director with the Health Sector Information Management and Information Technology Division at the BC Ministry is part of this 1%. He has built a LinkedIn following of over 9,000 connections that help him monitor this evolving conversation across industry, government, and community.

How can we help more public health leaders engage in this digital space to break down silos, and collaborate effectively as COVID19 continues to unfold? 

Public Health can't do it alone.

We may not have the speed of fake news, but together our community agencies and organizations have direct reach and trust.

We are building a tool-kit to catalyze more grassroots public health communications campaigns. We are actively searching for public health leaders and communications professionals to help us design and launch this resource.

We will also be setting up a working group for industry professionals, policy leaders, and researchers to contribute their insights to our work. 

If you’d like to learn more and collaborate with us, you can fill out this form or connect directly with Gina Uppal at