The Impact of Mass Contagion on Public Health

By Dulce Ruelas, MPH, CHES, CBC
Instructor, Master of Public Health Program

sign that says outbreak alert

Mass Contagion

Have you thought about how social media can influence our daily lives constantly? Do you know the concept of mass contagion? Mass contagion is the phenomenon where society takes it upon themselves to spread information without knowing its validity. This, as you know, can easily alarm society because of the various social methods technology has to offer (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.). As you read this, are you reflecting on what social media you use? How many times do you check your phone for new feeds? What types of news do you like or relate to? Simply stated, how do you communicate with others if it is not done by actually dialing their phone number?

Examples of Mass Contagion

Here are at least two examples from the past five years where global news went ‘viral’ through social media and led to mass contagion. In the case of the Ebola Virus, Pathak et al. (2015) researched how YouTube affected the dissemination of scientific based information inappropriately. Think back to 2014 when the virus outbreaks hit the news, how do you think the community reacted to videos on YouTube, regardless if they were offering truthful information or not? Visuals are extremely influential and viewers will use those images to determine whether what they see is accurate or not, regardless of the words.

After watching all the YouTube videos, do you actually know what the Ebola Virus is? Or is all that comes to mind a picture of doctors and nurses covered in white suites carrying stretchers? Images pop into your mind and influence the decisions you make; utilizing your emotions.

The second example of mass contagion would be the H1N1 pandemic. Research is just now revealing what truly happened with this case. Do you remember when the population resorted to wearing face masks, avoiding the outdoors and was glued to their Facebook account? H1N1 was a flu that initiated in Southern Mexico and within months spread worldwide (Lin, Savoia, Agboola, & Viswanath, 2014).

Social media can also be a means of mass communication. In disease management, public health officials or other direct management personnel are not able to communicate rapidly by calling everyone one on one (Simon, Goldberg, & Adini, 2015). This is where YouTube and Twitter play a significant role, as well as the rest of social media, because the government has to keep up with technology and its people.

But think to how you use YouTube or Twitter. Do you always look at the source? Or are you looking for a quick, unfiltered and easy answer (Liu & Kim, 2011)? Furthermore, do you review hashtags or keywords? How are you making sure hashtags are reliable? In the moment, once you read or watch information, for sure, you post or share them with your friends and family, right? These impulsive acts of sharing and posting can cause and lead to panic, defiance and or fear. That is what you can call a form of social influence.

Social Influences

Informational and normative social influences work to create mass contagion through social media. Informational social influences are activities that people adapt to and behaviors that are accepted in specific situations. Normative social influences, on the other hand, are the activities that people do in order to be accepted or liked by the rest of society. After reading on the Ebola Virus outbreak and living through the H1N1 pandemic, what social influence can you categorize yourself under?

Avoiding Susceptibility

Are you able to identify at least three ways to avoid being susceptible to mass contagion when using social media? It is critical to understand that your emotion, habits and social influences are the common ways that you tend to become more susceptible to joining the masses (Lin et al., 2014). Next time you want to post or feed into a pandemic or outbreak, review your sources and double check your emotions and habits. Unfiltered information is not always correct, nor the best response (Liu & Kim, 2011). There has to be a level of responsibility for each individual that posts and creates mass hysteria to avoid instilling panic and terror.

Consider leaving your comments below the blog. It is essential to hear from the audience and how mass contagion has affected your life or someone you know. This call to action is vital to all, in an effort to avoid wrongful panic amongst social media posts. Scientific based research is important to the health and well-being of our communities.


Lin, L., Savoia, E., Agboola, F., & Viswanath, K. (2014). What have we learned about communication inequalities during the H1N1 pandemic: A systematic review of the literature. BMC Public Health, 14,484. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-484

Liu, B. F., & Kim, S. (2011). How organizations framed the 2009 H1N1 pandemic via social and traditional media: Implications for U.S. health communicators. Public Relations Review, 37,233-244.  doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.03.005

Odlum, M., & Yoon, S. (2015). Major article: What can we learn about the Ebola outbreak from tweets?. American Journal of Infection Control, 4(3), 563-571. doi:10.1016/j.ajic.2015.02.023

Pathak, R., Poudel, D. R., Karmacharya, P., Pathak, A., Aryal, M. R., Mahmood, M., & Donato, A. A. (2015). YouTube as a source of information on Ebola virus disease. North American Journal of Medical Sciences, 7(7), 306.  doi:10.4103/1947-2714.161244

Seltzer, E., Jean, N., Kramer-Golinkoff, E., Asch, D., & Merchant, R. (2015). Original research: The content of social media’s shared images about Ebola: A retrospective study. Public Health, 12(9), 1273-1277.  doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2015.07.025

Simon, T., Goldberg, A., & Adini, B. (2015). Socializing in emergencies: A review of the use of social media in emergency situations. International Journal of Information Management, 35(5), 609-619. doi:10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2015.07.001


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.