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Empowering youth to combat misinformation on social media

Empowering youth to combat misinformation on social media

The SPH student-led project, Young Public, helps young people identify, create, and share trusted, evidence-based health information with their peers on Instagram.

Like. Share. Retweet. Repeat.

In the fast-moving world of social media, the ever-changing information landscape can result in a breeding ground for misinformation and distrust. Over just the last two years, this has never been more clear, from conspiracy theories around COVID-19 and vaccines to climate change and the presidential election. Now, as more people, especially young people, turn to their smartphones and social media platforms for the latest news and updates, the ability to spot and counter misinformation has become increasingly necessary.

Young Public, an initiative led by six School of Public Health graduate students, is working to combat this “infodemic” by empowering youth to identify, create, and share trusted health information with their peers on social media, specifically on Instagram.

“Young people are incredibly passionate about issues around health, climate change, and social justice, but they are so often left out of these larger conversations,” says Maria Tjilos, an MPH student who is spearheading the project. “Our aim with Young Public is to really elevate these young people’s voices and help them engage in advocacy in a way that is completely led by them.”

With the often harmful virality of misinformation, Young Public also aims to help youth develop both health literacy and media literacy as a way to prevent harm, says Indigo Kirsh, an MPH student and Young Public team member. “We want the young people we work with to cultivate a more mindful approach to media consumption and creation.”

The creation of Young Public

Tjilos was inspired to create Young Public while volunteering with high school students last fall. She noticed that the students were concerned about and interested in the influx of information coming across their screens, but they really had no understanding of how to parse through it to determine what was true and what wasn’t. “I knew the students wanted to be engaged in these wider conversations, we just had to figure out how to help them get there,” she says.

The team chose to center their efforts on Instagram for a number of reasons, including, most notably, the fact that young people are already on the platform and are well-versed with its features, and because the platform’s focus on graphics and imagery has made it an accessible space for online advocacy and resource sharing.

Through workshops and other programming, the Young Public team plans to work directly with youth in the community to brainstorm topics of interest, narrow down ideas, and create the content they are pushing out across the platform, all through an evidence-based, public health lens. Empowering youth to combat misinformation on social media.

This youth-led approach is core to Young Public’s mission, highlights Tjilos, because many young people, especially those in high school, often look to their peers to formulate their understanding of the world around them. “We want the young people we work with to be the educators for their peers, so it’s important that they be involved in every step of the content creation process,” she says. “This will not only help their voices be heard, but will also give them a sense of ownership and empowerment to advocate for change and model these positive behaviors to their social circles.”

Collaborating with community groups

Currently, the team is in the process of partnering with local community organizations, and are planning to begin working closely with youth to get Young Public off of the ground soon. Other members of the Young Public team include students Haley Piette, Paridhi Gupta, Dikha De, and Gretchen Weaver. They hope to officially launch the Instagram page within the next year, and are continuing to spread the word about the project and build strong relationships in the community in the meantime to ensure sustainability.

“I would really love to see this project continue long after my time at SPH,” says Tjilos. “I am painfully aware that MPH students are not in school here for long, but I hope that the next generation of SPH students can help support what we are building here and continue to strengthen and expand the partnerships we have made.”

Innovation support

Young Public is supported by a Social Impact and Innovation Award from idea hub and Innovate@BU. The award provided a year-long mentorship experience to translate ideas into impactful solutions. Applicants were awarded $500 to develop a project, and spent one semester working with SPH faculty and staff to develop the project and another semester working with the Innovate@BU team to grow their project into a sustainable venture and apply for additional funding. The Young Public team is currently in the second semester of their mentorship.

From fleshing out the initial idea and narrowing down goals and objectives to planning a budget and thinking through the operational logistics of the project, Tjilos and the rest of the Young Public team have worked closely with idea hub and SPH faculty members Sarah Lipson, assistant professor of health law, policy & management, and Allegra Gordon, assistant professor of community health sciences, to plan their project over the last semester.

“Developing Young Public was all new territory for us, and at times, we felt like we were floundering. There were, and still are, so many unknowns,” says Tjilos. “But the support we have received so far has been so incredible. This project would truly not exist without it.”

idea hub mentorship

“At idea hub, our mission is to foster collaborations with non-traditional partners and encourage innovation in all forms,” says Vanessa Edouard, managing director of idea hub. “We are so grateful for the support and partnership of our colleagues at Innovate@BU in launching the Social Impact and Innovation Award and helping our students turn their ideas into reality.”

“Our students saw a public health need and set out to find a way to solve it,” says Gwenn Fairall, assistant director of strategic initiatives at idea hub who has worked directly with the Young Public team. “It has been so inspiring to see their hard work, passion, and drive over the last semester, and I can’t wait to see where they are able to take the project next.”


This article originally appeared on the Boston University School of Public Health website as Young Public empowers youth to combat misinformation on social media, available here.

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