Dr. Twitter: The Masses Turn to Social Media for Healthcare Advice

Perhaps social media — or rather, certain forms of social media — aren't overrun by crackpots and conspiracy theorists, after all. Or maybe they just reside in some far off hinterland of the Internet.

The point being, Twitter has become reliable for something.

So says a new study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, who analyzed 9,510 tweets concerning one of the most contentious issues in modern medicine: vaccinations. Turns out, Twitter's channels reward people who back up their information from credible news outlets and health providers, so tweets that embrace status quo tend to have the most influence.

“Influence” in this case meant number of replies, favorites, or retweets. Of the 2,580 tweets that elicited a reaction, 33 percent viewed vaccines favorably, 54 percent were neutral, and 13 percent were negative. The vast majority discussed topics you might see in the health pages of The New York Times, such as efficacy of a herpes vaccine for women, development of the NeuVax E-74 vaccine for breast cancer, a blog that debunked vaccine-autism links, endorsement of the human papilloma virus vaccination for boys, and foreshadowing about a children's malaria vaccine and a potential vaccine to ward off lung cancer. Many tweets did, indeed, link to The New York Times or other reputable vessels.

University of Texas assistant professor Brad Love, who studies the persuasive power of mass media, says those findings surprised him.

“We live in an age of mass personal media where you can send a message out to one person and it might go to a thousand,” he says. “It's a really mixed bag of return.” He adds that people have a long history of crowd-sourcing their health care decisions, even before the term was invented. Our parents didn't use Twitter, but they watched Dr. Phil. Their friends might have relied on pop culture trends like fad diets or homeopathy.

Apparently there are enough quality-control mechanisms in Twitter to hold people accountable for what they say. Granted, the ratio of truth-to-fallacy might change once researchers broaden their scope beyond 140 characters.

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