Decolonizing Risk Communication: Indigenous Responses to COVID-19 using Social Media



American Indian and Alaska Native; AIAN; Native American; Indigenous; Coronavirus Disease 2019; COVID-19; pandemic; social media; risk communication; culturally adapted communication; Facebook; Tribal communities


In this exploratory study, we examine how American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) governments and organizations are using social media to share critical health information about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) with their citizens.  Through a thematic analysis of 119 public Facebook posts made by Tribal governments and organizations, we identified three broad categories and 13 subthemes. Tribal governments and organizations created risk communication material for their respective communities that fell under (1) risk reduction, (2) meeting community members’ needs, and (3) staying connected to community and culture.  Our findings suggest that through social media AIAN communities and organizations played a crucial role in disseminating reliable culturally adapted risk communication and vital community information to Tribal citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such communication included clear illustrations, posts and messages about the importance of masking up, social distancing and washing one’s hands; mandated border closures; and suggestions for maintaining a sense of connectedness with community.  By doing so they are filling a gap that ensures their communities receive the relevant information they need to mitigate and manage risks.  In order to understand how to better meet community needs, more work is needed to improve the wellbeing and visibility of AIAN people in the areas of health disparities, technology, social media, and the many impacts of COVID-19. 

Author Biographies

Nicole Kuhn, University of Washington

Current PhD student in the Information School

Shawon Sarkar, University of Washington

PhD student in the Information School

Lauren Alaine White, University of Michigan

PhD Student in the Joint Program for Social Work and Psychology

Josephine Hoy, University of Washington

PhD Student in Human Centered Design & Engineering

Celena McCray, Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board

Project Coordinator - THRIVE & WA DOH Parenting Teens

Clarita Lefthand-Begay, University of Washington

Assistant Professor at the Information School


Abrams, E. M., & Greenhawt, M. (2020). Risk communication during COVID-19. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.

Applied Indigenous Research Methods Social Media Group. (2020). Indigenous Responses to COVID-19: A Social Media Toolkit.

Belton, K. A. (2010). From cyberspace to offline communities: Indigenous peoples and global connectivity. Alternatives, 35(3), 193-215.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101.

Castor, M. L., Smyser, M. S., Taualii, M. M., Park, A. N., Lawson, S. A., & Forquera, R. A. (2006). A nationwide population- based study identifying health disparities between American Indians/Alaska Natives and the general populations living in select urban counties. American Journal of Public Health, 96(8), 1478–1484.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (n.d.). Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Conte, K. P., Schure, M. B., & Goins, R. T. (2015). Correlates of social support in older American Indians: The native elder care study. Aging & Mental Health, 19(9), 835-843.

Collman, A. (2020, May 6). A Native American health center asked the government for medical supplies. 3 weeks later they received a box of body bags instead. Business Insider.

Crowe, M., Inder, M., & Porter, R. (2015). Conducting qualitative research in mental health: Thematic and content analyses. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49(7), 616-623.

Denzin, N. K., Lincoln, Y. S., & Smith, L. T. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies. Sage.

Doshi, S., Jordan, A., Kelly, K., and Solomon, D. (2020, June 18). The COVID-19 Response in Indian Country. A Federal Failure. Center for American Progress.

Driedger, S. M., Cooper, E., Bartlett, J., Jardine, C., & Furgal, C. (2013). Communicating Risk to Aboriginal Peoples: First Nations and Metis Responses to H1N1 Risk Messages. PLoS ONE, 8(8), E71106.

Duarte, M. E. (2017). Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet across Indian Country (Indigenous confluences). Seattle, [Washington]; London, [England]: University of Washington Press.

Duarte, M. E., & Vigil-Hayes, M. (2017). #Indigenous: A Technical and Decolonial Analysis of Activist Uses of Hashtags Across Social Movements. MediaTropes, 7(1), 166–184., H. [@howieechohawk]. (n.d.). Posts [Instagram profile]. Instagram. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from

Fryberg, S. A., & Townsend, S. S. M. (2008). The psychology of invisibility. In G. Adams, M. Biernat, N. R. Branscombe, C. S. Crandall, & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.), Decade of Behavior. Commemorating Brown: The social psychology of racism and discrimination (p. 173–193). American Psychological Association.

Gamio, L., Smith, M., Yourish, K., Almukhtar, S., & Gates, G. (2020, Mar 21). Watch How the Coronavirus Spread Across the United States: [Foreign Desk]. New York Times

Godoy, M., Wood, D. (2020, May 30). What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?

Hammack, P., Fryberg, S., Covarrubias, R., & Burack, J. (n.d.). The Ongoing Psychological Colonization of North American Indigenous People. In The Oxford Handbook of Social Psychology and Social Justice (p. The Oxford Handbook of Social Psychology and Social Justice, Chapter 35). Oxford University Press.

Hilleary, C. (2020, April 04). Navajo Government, Citizens United Against COVID-19.

Hinzo, A.M., & Clark, L.S. (2019). Digital survivance and Trickster humor: Exploring visual and digital Indigenous epistemologies in the #NoDAPL movement. Information, Communication & Society: AoIR Special Issue, 22(6), 791-807.

Holshue, M. L., DeBolt, C., Lindquist, S., Lofy, K. H., Wiesman, J., Bruce, H., ... & Diaz, G. (2020). First case of 2019 novel coronavirus in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine.

Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health (JHU CAIH) (n.d.). A children’s storybook - Our smallest warriors, our strongest medicine: Overcoming COVID-19.

Jones, D. S. (2006). The persistence of American Indian health disparities. American Journal of Public Health, 96(12), 2122–2134.

Júnior, J. G., Moreira, M. M., Pinheiro, W. R., de Amorim, L. M., Lima, C. K. T., da Silva, C. G. L., & Neto, M. L. R. (2020). The mental health of those whose rights have been taken away: An essay on the mental health of indigenous peoples in the face of the 2019 Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak. Psychiatry Research, 113094.

Kovach, M. (2010). Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts. University of Toronto Press.

Lokosh, & Hinson, J. (2016). Chickasaw Oral Literature. In Haag M. (Ed.), A Listening Wind: Native Literature from the Southeast (pp. 105-114). Lincoln; London: University of Nebraska Press.

Martin, D., & Yurkovich, E. (2014). “Close-knit” defines a healthy Native American Indian family. Journal of Family Nursing, 20(1), 51-72.

Massey, Peter D, Pearce, Glenn, Taylor, Kylie A, Orcher, Lisa, Saggers, Sherry, & Durrheim, David N. (2009). Reducing the risk of pandemic influenza in Aboriginal communities. Rural and Remote Health, 9(3), 1290.

Meldrum, J. (2019). Bears, Wildmen, Yeti and Sasquatch. In Nevin O., Convery I., & Davis P. (Eds.), The Bear: Culture, Nature, Heritage (pp. 55-66). Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK; Rochester, NY, USA: Boydell & Brewer.

Molyneaux, H., O'Donnell, S., Kakekaspan, C., Walmark, B., Budka, P., & Gibson, K. (2014). Social media in remote First Nation communities. Canadian Journal of Communication, 39(2).

Monroe, B. (2002). The Internet in Indian Country. Computers and Composition, 19, 285–296.

Morris, T.L. and Meinrath, S.D. (2009). New media, technology and Internet use in Indian Country: Quantitative and qualitative analyses. New America Foundation, Washington, DC.

Nagle, R. (2020, April 24). Native Americans being left out of coronavirus data and labelled as ‘other’. The Guardian.

Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board (n.d.). Home [Facebook page]. Facebook. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from

O’Neill, E. (2020, March 19). Tribal Programs That Prepare For Public Health Crises Readying For Coronavirus.

Pew Research Center. (2019). Social Media Fact Sheet.

Pickner, W. J., Ziegler, K. M., Hanson, J. D., Payne, N. R., Zook, H. G., Kharbanda, A. B., ... & Puumala, S. E. (2018). Community perspectives on emergency department use and care for American Indian children. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, 5(5), 939-946.

Rice, E.S., Haynes, E., Royce, P., & Thompson, S.C. (2016). Social media and digital technology use among Indigenous young people in Australia: A literature review. International Journal for Equity In Health, 15(81), 81.

Rushing, S.C., & Stephens, D. (2011). Use of Media Technologies by Native American Teens and Young Adults in the Pacific Northwest: Exploring Their Utility for Designing Culturally Appropriate Technology-Based Health Interventions. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 32(3-4), 135-145.

Smith, L. T. (2013). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books Ltd.

Sweet, M. A. (2013). Social media: New links for Indigenous health. Medical Journal of Australia, 199(1), 18–18.

Tahir, D. & Cancryn, A. (2020, June 11) American Indian tribes thwarted in efforts to get coronavirus data. Politico.

Todd, V. (2012). Tribal Beliefs About Bigfoot. The Journal of Chickasaw History and Culture, 13(1), 70.

Urban Indian Health Institute (n.d.). Home [Facebook page]. Facebook. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from

van Dorn, A., Cooney, R. E., & Sabin, M. L. (2020). COVID-19 exacerbating inequalities in the US. Lancet (London, England), 395(10232), 1243.

Vigil, M., Rantanen, M., & Belding, E. (2015). A First Look at Tribal Web Traffic. Proceedings of the 24th International Conference on World Wide Web, 1155-1165.

Walters, K. L., Johnson-Jennings, M., Stroud, S., Rasmus, S., Charles, B., John, S., ... & Lowe, J. (2020). Growing from Our Roots: Strategies for Developing Culturally Grounded Health Promotion Interventions in American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Communities. Prevention Science, 21(1), 54-64.

Walters, K. L., & Simoni, J. M. (2002). Reconceptualizing Native Women's Health: An “Indigenist” Stress-Coping Model. American Journal of Public Health, 92(4), 520-524.

Weaver, H. N., & White, B. J. (1997). The Native American Family Circle: Roots of Resiliency. Journal of Family Social Work, 2(1), 67-79.

WeRNative. (2020). Coronavirus - Staying Healthy [YouTube channel].

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

World Health Organization. (n.d.). General information on risk communication. Retrieved July 30, 2020 from

World Health Organization. (2020, April 27). WHO Timeline - COVID-19.