EpiPens, Social Media and Social Change

In News, Social Media by UFSocial Staff

by Jennifer Braddock, UFSocial Contributing Professor

Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times “Well” blog ran a piece in late August about the power of social media users in bringing awareness to the increasing price of the EpiPen, a device that is used to deliver a dose of epinephrine to combat life-threatening allergic reactions.

gator epipen

Photo Credit: Sabrina Habib Williams

The EpiPen, which has an expiration date, is currently being sold for $500 to $600 and users, especially young children, must have multiple EpiPens for home, school and daycare.  The message of price gouging eventually moved from social media posts to coverage of that issue by major media outlets.

In the mere days since outlets have been covering this story, Mylan, the maker of the EpiPen, announced in a press release that savings cards would be made available to offset 50% of the cost for the life-saving device.  And all of this started with one woman who was fed-up with outrageous prices and used Facebook as an outlet.

She is but one consumer in a sea of social media users who was able to bring awareness to an issue leading to changes by of one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

The major question for consumers and those of us who study social media and digital communication is: how did she do it? I’ve drawn a few conclusions based on my own experience working in the communication field as well as some cursory explorations of this topic (and I think I’ve got a new research question on my hands).

For now, I’ve come up with three major components to social media movements that effect real, quantifiable change.

First, you have to strike a chord. The most effective social media movements have incited rage, anger, empathy, sadness, and a general feeling of “this matters to me too.”  Think about the movements we’ve seen in the last year or so and the emotions they have managed to contrive. One such movement involving racial discrimination has been in headlines across the nation as we confront social issues surrounding the treatment of people of color by police, and this has certainly been an issue fueled by strong sentiments across the board, many of which have been shared on social media.

Second, you need a hashtag that “sticks” as Parker-Pope mentioned in her NYT piece. The consumer activists in her story rallied around #epigate to bring their story to the mass media. Other powerful hashtags that we’ve seen circulating in the past year, according to this Washington Post article, include #lovewins, #blacklivesmatter, #bringbackourgirls and #givingtuesday.

One important point about the use of hashtags is that we’ve seen the digital realm cross over into the physical realm as our interpersonal discourse includes hashtags, we place hashtags in text messages, and plaster them onto walls and posters.  Hashtags have all at once become the rallying cry and the witty linguistic tool of the masses.

Third, there must be an easy, accessible way for social media users to participate in effecting change.  Certainly social media activism has been criticized in the past as a way for arm-chair activists to feel better about themselves by raising awareness on issues, but not actively doing anything to assist in changing the circumstances they claim to care about.

In the case of the EpiPen story, an online petition was circulated and signed by concerned social media users. Change agents and social media influencers alike need to provide users with options for being involved in making change and seeing the results.

Popular blogger Glennon Melton of Momastery did just that when she raised awareness on the issues facing Syrian refugees earlier this year. She ended her blog post on awareness with options for donating to the Compassion Collective, a charity she co-founded that partners with overseas refugee aid organizations. The Compassion Collective campaign raised 1 million dollars in 31 hours.  Her credibility as a blogger and social media influencer who encourages others added to the effectiveness of this particular  “love” campaign, but the blog post was successful because it included a clear call to action and method of giving.

While I believe these three components to a social media campaign are effective in crowdsourcing social change, there are most certainly other aspects of social media that make it the perfect catalyst for activism.  As social media users and practitioners, we have in our hands and at our fingertips the tools to effect social change.  The question becomes, what’s our next move(ment)?

Featured photo by Sarah Jusko.

About the Author

Jennifer earned a Ph.D. from the University of Florida and has continued to serve the university in the capacity of instructor and researcher. Her research interests include social media, health communication, and intercultural communication. She resides in the D.C. area with her husband and four children.

About the Author

UFSocial Staff