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Dornsife Research Explores Twitter as a Public Health Tool

By Amy Confair, MPH

December 18, 2015

Emerging communication channels like social media present an opportunity for public health professionals to adapt and extend public health practice and research that has traditionally used print, radio, and television. With this in mind, Philip Massey, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in Dornsife’s Department of Community Health and Prevention (CHP), is exploring Twitter, one of the newer popular venues for real time public discourse among people globally. Collaborators on this work include Ann Klassen, PhD, professor in CHP, Amy Leader, DrPH, assistant professor at Jefferson University, Alexandra Budenz, MA, DrPH candidate in CHP, and Kara Fisher, MPH '16 concentrating in Biostatistics. Some of Massey’s current work focuses specifically on HPV vaccination, though the research findings reflect broad lessons for health communication.

As public health research using social media, such as Twitter, continues to grow, the development and extension of new methodologies is paramount. One challenge is to find ways of collecting tweets related to a particular topic. Luckily, at a Drexel networking event, Massey met a student from the College of Computing and Informatics who had designed a data mining program that collects Twitter data using specified search terms. Massey and the team used this program to collect Twitter data over a one-year period. They were then able to validate the results with Microsoft data. This demonstrated the viability of conducting this type of research using Twitter because it showed that with the correct software and a comprehensive list of search terms one could reasonably collect a pool of Twitter data that represented the full conversation. Massey and colleagues are now taking on the next step in improving methods for conducting this type of research - working to build computer models to analyze the data for sentiment and tone, etc., replacing manual work, thereby improving the efficiency and feasibility of conducting this type of research.

In one area of this research, Massey and colleagues are examining opportunities to compare and integrate data from the world of Twitter with data from national health surveys to explore the potential relationship between Twitter and health behaviors and outcomes. Discovering how Twitter communication may be associated with health behaviors and outcomes, and how they impact each other, could inform public health interventions. For example, analyzing the content and geographic origin of HPV vaccine-related tweets and comparing that to regional HPV vaccination rates could tell an interesting story. Twitter might provide a reflection of public sentiment about an issue, or predict population health behaviors.

Twitter research could also inform the development of communication campaigns. In one study from Massey et al., tweets from “elite users” with almost 5,000 followers or more (often corporate or large organization accounts) were compared to tweets from users with fewer followers and found that “elite users” were more likely to hashtag (#) to contribute to a trend or popular dialogue, and less likely to engage in interpersonal communication with retweets (RT) or mentions (@). This demonstrates that tailored use of hashtags, @ mentions, and retweets in communication campaigns could strengthen their reach and effectiveness.

Social media, and specifically Twitter, has the potential to accelerate information dissemination and perhaps limit the spread of misinformation. For example, in the current research from Massey et al, many of the most popular HPV vaccine tweets called attention to new research findings (e.g. research showing that HPV vaccination does not lead to riskier sexual behavior among girls and that U.S. states with the lowest HPV vaccination rates also have the highest rates of cervical cancer). This epitomizes the opportunity presented by Twitter to engage diverse populations and to keep people informed of the latest research findings. As Massey puts it, “leveraging social media for public health research and practice provides significant opportunities for national health organizations, local health departments, community-based organizations, and physician groups, to reach and engage with diverse populations to promote health – it meets people where they are.”