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October 21, 2022

Health Influencers on Social Media: A Threat to Public Health?

Young adults in a subway car looking down at their phones

Social media influencers create content for large numbers of followers around health-related content, such as fitness, nutrition, and wellbeing. While knowledgeable, influencers often lack the expertise to give informed advice about sensitive health topics. In addition, they are often sponsored by industry players, such as junk-food companies. Consequently, they may spread misinformation and contribute to an infodemic environment on social media. At the same time, however, influencers convey feelings of closeness and can inspire their followers to live a healthy lifestyle. This positive potential can be used in public health campaigns and to encourage young people to eat healthy, exercise more, and better manage their mental health.

This panel provided a platform for a discussion about how influencers may both threaten and promote public health. Panelists gave brief introductory remarks and then engaged in conversation moderated by Professor Leticia Bode.

The event was co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology Program and Global Health Institute.


Deborah Brooks is a running and fitness blogger and influencer. She is a National Academy of Sports Medicine nutrition coach, a Road Runners Club of America run coach, and a licensed clinical social worker. She currently serves as the chapter leader of Moms Run This Town in McLean, Virginia. Find her on Instagram at @DeborahBrooks14 or on TikTok at @DeborahBrooks140. 

Denise Lisi DeRosa is an expert in online safety and digital citizenship and a frequent speaker on technology-life balance. Her understanding of the cultural and societal impacts of communication technologies along with her experience as a mom inspired the development of her first workshop on parenting in the digital age. She launched Cyber Sensible in 2015 and continues to create and develop new workshops to address the rapidly changing digital landscape. DeRosa brings her background in traditional, new, and social media; education; and personal insight in raising tech-savvy kids to her work as she encourages her clients to establish healthy technology habits and find digital balance. DeRosa has a master's degree in communication, culture and technology from Georgetown University and over 15 years in the media industry at AOL, VH1, and Comedy Central.

Raffael Heiss is a Fulbright visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology Program. He is also an assistant professor at the Management Center Innsbruck. Previously, he was a Ph.D. candidate and uni:docs fellow at the Department of Communication, University of Vienna. He is the principal investigator of the project “Health Influencers on Social Media: Who They Are, What They Post, and How They Affect Adolescents’ Health,” funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). Heiss’ research has appeared in leading academic journals, such as Communication Research, New Media & Society, Information, Communication & Society, Political Communication, and elsewhere.

Tarena Lofton is an audience engagement producer at Kaiser Health News (KHN). She leads content creation for KHN’s daily health care and health policy stories and promotes that content across social platforms. She joined KHN in May 2019 as a social media intern and was soon promoted to assistant social media manager. In July 2021, Lofton was hired as a strategic communications specialist by a top government relations and strategic communications firm based in Washington, DC, where she specialized in multimedia design and podcast production, but returned to KHN in summer 2022. Lofton graduated from Indiana University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indian University Bloomington.

Leticia Bode (moderator) is an associate professor in the Communication, Culture, and Technology Program at Georgetown University. Her work lies at the intersection of communication, technology, and political behavior, emphasizing the role communication and information technologies may play in the acquisition and use of political information. This covers a wide area, including projects looking at incidental exposure to political information on social media, effects of exposure to political comedy, use of social media by political elites, selective exposure and political engagement in new media, and the changing nature of political socialization given the modern media environment. She received her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and her bachelor’s degree from Trinity University.