Health Communication: 4 Useful Things Rebecca Black's Story Can Still Teach You Today

By Samuel R. Mendez. June 8, 2023.

Rebecca Black’s music video for “Friday” debuted on YouTube in 2011. The ensuing mass bullying became a watershed moment in social media. Unfortunately, we live in a world where more and more people face such harassment. Rebecca Black’s experience still offers lessons about social media for public health communication today.

Public Health Communication Action Items

There are things we can do to make online public health communication safer: 

1.) Social Media’s Strengths are Double-Edged for Health Communication.

Social media apps allow users to bridge online and offline action. So, they can help health communication around factors like vaccination. Social media are not bound by time or space. So, health communication can reach more people. Social media provide updates on social networks. So, health departments can use them to learn about community concerns. However, social media’s key features also enable bullying. Bridging online and offline spaces enables in-person harassment. No longer limited by time and space, people near and far can add to a nonstop pile-on. Connecting to broad networks means that harassers can easily target their victims’ loved ones and colleagues.

The visibility of social media can be a blessing and a curse. Rebecca Black experienced these highs and lows at 13 years old, from red carpets and music videos to death threats and falling out with friends. Health officials have increasingly experienced these dynamics too, via: racial slurs and physical violence, doxing, and protests outside of their homes.

Despite the risks, public health communication demands visibility now more than ever. That’s why the National Association of County and City Health Officials recommends social media for health communication and outreach. Existing research backs this up. For example, Facebook has proven to be an effective platform to promote exercise. And social network sites have proven useful for health behavior change. Social media also remain important channels for women and BIPOC to advance their careers and to find mutual support in health fields.

2.) Social Media Profit Comes Before Care.

Despite known harms, social media are unlikely to change any time soon. They don’t foster engagement for its own sake, but because it generates revenue. Unfortunately, we can see this in the case of Rebecca Black. How many dollars in ad revenue did this one instance of cyberbullying generate? We’ll never know exactly, but we have clues: Google’s 2011 Zeitgeist report listed Rebecca Black as the fastest rising query in 2011, among the likes of Adele and Steve Jobs. Meanwhile, Rebecca and her mom were in a legal battle to retain access to the song and the use of her own image for profit.

The relationship between harm and profit is still a key feature of social media today. An investigation into Facebook revealed how willing social media companies are to host false content for the sake of engagement metrics. Twitter stands to gain millions in revenue from reinstating just 10 prominent accounts, previously suspended for hate speech, harassment, and disinformation. When we use social media for health communication, it’s important to remember we are entering spaces that don’t prioritize care.

3.) Online Harassment Is Decentralized.

In Rebecca’s story, online networks were so decentralized that it was hard to hold anyone accountable for harm, even though so many people participated. Death threats against Michigan health officials 10 years later echo that experience. A decentralized movement against pandemic safety measures fed into these threats. However, decentralization meant local leaders could disavow connections between their movement and such harassment despite the fact that health officials faced at least 1,499 incidents in the pandemic’s first 11 months. This situation prompted the executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials speaking out for more workforce protections.

Though the national state of emergency around COVID-19 has ended, the harassment will not just go away. Surveys of US adults during the pandemic showed an increase in the portion who believe harassing public health officials is justified. The uncomfortable truth is that public health communication comes with risks that we can’t resolve on our own. 

4.) Discrimination Shapes Harassment.

The mistreatment doesn’t just exist on one platform. And it intersects with other forms of bigotry. In the past few years, racism on social media has gained prominence. LGBTQ+ and BIPOC live streamers on Twitch experienced floods of coordinated harassment called “hate raids.” And an inadequate response from the platform prompted Black creators’ calls for more prevention. Shortly after Elon Musk’s takeover, use of the n-word on Twitter increased by over 200%, alongside a rise in the use of slurs targeting women and LGBTQ+ folks. This past April, attendees used racist language and imagery to disrupt an online Frederick County Health Department event about Black maternal health.

The US public health workforce is increasingly racially diverse, and nearly 80% women. Our workforce has a right to be online, to promote health equity, and to be safe while doing so. We can’t put our people in harm’s way for the sake of health communication and just hope for the best.

Where Does Health Communication Go from Here?

These issues are bigger than the field of public health alone. We can support creators pushing for changes to social media companies’ safety policies. We can push our employers to make response plans in case of online harassment. We can follow the National Association of County and City Health Officials in advocating for more legal protections.

With online hate becoming the norm, it may be hard to imagine a better future. For her part, Rebecca Black rewrote her story by continuing to release music and engage fans on her own terms. Rebecca described in an interview the hope she gets from people apologizing to her and others from their past. We can look to her story and to the resilience of public health workers as reminders of what’s possible. At the same time, it’s important to make structural changes so people don’t have to be so resilient in the first place.

Key References

  • Ward JA, Stone EM, Mui P, & Resnick B. 2022. “Pandemic-Related Workplace Violence and Its Impact on Public Health Officials, March 2020‒January 2021.” American Journal of Public Health. 112(5): 736-746.

  • Chan TKH, Cheung CMK, & Wong RYM. 2019. “Cyberbullying on Social Networking Sites: The Crime Opportunity and Affordance Perspectives.” Journal of Management Information Systems. 36(2): 574-609.

  • West-Livingston LN, South EC, Mabins S, & Landry, A. 2021. “When Screens Become Mirrors: Black Women in Medicine Find Belonging through Social Media.” AEM Educ Train. 2021; 5(Suppl. 1): S98– S101.

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