Digital media can promote safer behavior in faith communities, according to the findings of research recently published in the journal New Media & Society.

Professor Yossi David of the Department of Communication of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz set out to study the role digital media played in the heal and safety practices of Ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. These communities have been more affected by the pandemic than other segments of the population in Israel.

Statistics outline that within the ultra-Orthodox population, the mortality due to COVID-19 was six times higher among the elderly generation (60 years of age and older) than among the same population in the rest of Israel during 2020. It had been suggested, the study said, that people in this group perhaps failed to comply with government COVID-19 regulations, such as the prohibition of attending weddings or funerals, while another suggestion points to cramped housing conditions and a lack of health information.

Along with Dr. Baruch Shomron, a postdoctoral fellow at Mainz University, David conducted a survey of 500 ultra-Orthodox Israeli adults during the second COVID wave in the fall of 2020 prior to the availability of vaccines. They found that only 47% had internet access at home.

According to the study, there are 1.2 million members of ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel. These members lead a secluded life, following Jewish-Orthodox laws, and distance themselves from Western influences. Rabbis oversee many aspects of daily life, including the adoption or use of new technologies. As cell phones became ever more ubiquitous in everyday life, rabbinical committees eventually approved so-called kosher devices, which allow people to make phone calls but not to access other functions such as text messaging or the Internet. The community’s traditional media — print media and radio — are also supervised by rabbis and adhere to ultra-Orthodox rules that prohibit use of news websites.

“Study participants who accessed certain websites and social media were more likely to adhere to government health guidelines, such as wearing a mask,” wrote David.

The survey revealed that women were more likely than men to follow government health regulations, including mask wearing and social distancing. Acceptance of COVID-19 regulations increased with age. But the use of digital media was varied with 84% using a ‘kosher’ cell phone device and news websites only being accessed by 20% and only 8% reading mainstream Israeli news websites. Only 13% said they used social media. Those who used social media were more apt to follow COVID-19 protocols.

Professors David and Shomron concluded that health communication should be adapted to the needs of all segments of society, to their media habits and cultural beliefs. “In times of national and international emergencies, digital media could serve as an effective means of communicating with authoritarian and closed-off communities, including those that reject science and spread conspiracy theories, extreme right-wing groups, and conservative, insulated religious groups,” the pair wrote.

Susan Barreto
Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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