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Social Media as an Epidemiological Tool

In public health, government entities often communicate directly with the public on social media platforms. In fact, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain 67 official CDC-associated accounts on Twitter, a major social media platform.

Research is finding that social media also has the potential to serve as somewhat of an epidemiological tool when it comes to predicting disease outbreaks. Studies are looking to various forms of social media including Google Trends and Twitter to identify which areas are likely to be the next site of a disease outbreak.

According to Shi Chen, PhD, with the Department of Public Health Sciences at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, social media can provide faster results on the spread of disease. The CDC is required to wait on reports from state agencies which gather data from health agencies before sharing trend information to ensure accuracy. On social media, the information is gathered in real-time – while it may not be entirely accurate, it can speak to the severity of an outbreak in a specific area.

According to Dr. Chen, a social media user is far more likely to write on a social platform if they are feeling ill long before (if ever) they will seek medical attention. Researchers have looked to social media to anticipate influenza outbreaks by monitoring search terms related to influenza. These results are then further qualified by verifying that the tweet is about the person who posted the tweet or about another person in a nearby area (if the distance is unknown, the tweet is disregarded) and that the flu tweet is an affirmative sentence and in a present tense.

According to a publication by Dr. Chen, et al, “Web-based discussion in social media can be an imperative indicator of the actual disease severity and help health officials to more accurately evaluate the time-sensitive situation when actual case counts are still being gathered and verified.”

While research in this area is still developing, accuracy is expected to improve as methods and framework are finetuned. The results of these research methods can potentially be used for other disease outbreak detections and can also serve as a green light to help public agencies guard against misinformation during a disease outbreak by supplying accurate information first.

Misinformation on Social Media

According to a publication studying influenza trends through social media, “since we live in the data era, social networking sites are widely used to post news, events, and even to express feelings. Therefore, networking sites have played an important role in real time analysis and have been used for faster trend predictions in many areas.” When there is an outbreak of disease in today’s world, social network uses look to their networking sites to share their experience and seek immediate answers. While information is spread much more rapidly than in years prior thanks to the real-time results of social media, that information is not always accurate.

Dr. Chen dedicates his research to looking into the misinformation of health news on social media. And, according to Dr. Chen, there are a few reasons misinformation as it relates to health is seemingly booming, the first being that health is a relevant topic to everyone. Regardless of a person’s wealth or political beliefs, they will always care about their personal health. The second contributing factor is that health news requires somewhat of a professional level of knowledge and unfortunately, not everyone is fully educated on these topics.

Benefits of Social Media

While misinformation can cause undue anger, confusion, fear, and panic, it can also be utilized to target audiences with correct information. Once the misconceptions are understood by those who are knowledgeable on a health-related topic, the accurate information can be strategically targeted and disseminated to those who may be misinformed.

According to Dr. Chen, social media can also play a positive role in public health as it relates to sharing information about living a healthy lifestyle. Social media provides a platform to spread awareness about positive health changes including the risks of smoking and providing resources to quit.

While social media is not expected to go away anytime soon, there is a way to better understand how to utilize the platforms. Through continuing research efforts, social media will soon prove useful as a tool to help better public health in predicting potential risk areas as well as encouraging healthier lifestyles.

In a 2018 publication, Dr. Shi Chen, et al study the social media intervention of the CDC during the 2016 Zika outbreak. Dynamics of Health Agency Response and Public Engagement in Public Health Emergency: A Case Study of CDC Tweeting Patterns During the 2016 Zika Epidemic