By Susan E. Matthews
If you ever feel guilty about spending just a little bit too much time on social media, consider this: the time you spend interacting online may soon be used to better track, predict and monitor public health issues like disease outbreaks and vaccination pushes.
A set of commentaries coming out in Science today expose how influential other people's views can be when it comes to how we accept and act on public health advice, and describes how researchers could start to harness the power of big data to reveal more about public opinion and response to health issues.
"Within the last five or six years, people have been interested in the idea of social networks and how they relate to disease," said Bernard Fuemmeler, PhD, MPH, co-director of mHealth@Duke, an interdisciplinary health interest group at Duke University, who was not involved in the commentaries. "From their inception, there has been a lot of interest in using them to help us understand disease and health," Fuemmeler said, noting that the work around social networks and biology is inherently interdisciplinary.
In their commentary, researchers Chris Bauch, a mathematician at University of Waterloo in Canada, and Alison Galvani, an epidemiologist at Yale University proposed that there are several ways to collect and analyze the data available through social media networks like Facebook and Twitter in order to better understand human behavior, particularly as it applies to health.
"We're looking to use social media to better understand social behavior," Bauch said. "The problem with trying to understand human behavior is that we don't have good data on it," Bauch said. Surveys tend to fall short of capturing the true public opinion around health crises like a spreading disease or a new vaccination, he said, but social media may be a better place to mine these opinions, he said.
In their commentary, Bauch and Galvani pointed to how a health crisis playing out on social media often creates a larger beast. "When a social contagion is coupled to a biological contagion, the resulting disease-behavior system can exhibit dynamics that do not occur when the two subsystems are isolated from one another," they wrote, noting that the sum is greater than the parts.
For example, a celebrity's opinion on a vaccine may ripple through social media and have a greater impact on public opinion than originally thought. Or, when a public health crisis is playing out, social media can provide clues as to whether a culture will listen to health officials' instructions. For example, in the SARS-coronavirus outbreak, it would be helpful to know what a population's acceptance level of quarantine and isolation would be.
Another commentary, by Dan Kahan, a law and psychology professor at Yale, in Science details the problem with how the HPV vaccine was released. Kahan argues that the vaccine saw so much controversy because the major manufacturer of it, Merck, aimed to fast-track approval, and had a product that was targeted toward young girls. "It was likely inevitable that people of opposing cultural orientations would react divergently to a high-profile campaign to enact legislation mandating vaccination of 11- to 12-year-old girls for a sexually transmitted disease," Kahan writes in the commentary. "Yet there was nothing inevitable about the HPV vaccine being publicly introduced in a manner so likely to generate cultural conflict."
The hope is that if more data collection and analysis was done, we could better predict responses like the one that hindered the HPV vaccine's success, and come up with a better way of delivering the message, and as a result, hopefully a better way of delivering the healthcare.
"Maybe there's a more optimal way to roll out these interventions," Bauch said.
Fuemmeler agreed, noting that analysis of social networks could also show us which leaders in the field might be most effective at delivering messages. "We can direct our networking to centralized nodes," he said. "It's an interesting way to direct public health campaigns."
One of the constant challenges of Twitter, of course, is that "misinformation can spread just as fast as good information, and the media doesn't distinguish," Fuemmeler noted. Determining a way to validate accurate information will be another challenge to conquer.
"How Facebook Can Help Public Health" originally appeared on Everyday Health.