By: Heather Williams

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snap Chat.  Social media.  Social media offers a form of communication unlike any technology we have had in the past.  Chances are, you are probably reading this particular post on a social media platform, perhaps even from a device you keep in your pocket or near your body throughout most of the day.

This type of online medium allows for greater information sharing, opportunities for interpersonal communication, or even collaboration and crowdsourcing with online users.  This has become a global phenomenon across the entire world.  In fact, over two thirds of adult Internet users in the world are active on one or more social networking sites according to research in 2014.  This number has most likely increased since then.

Social media presents several advantages to both the public and public health authorities.  Researchers have presented health officials with opportunities for vaccine strategies using social media data, epidemiologists can use this alternative surveillance to monitor disease detection and dissemination of information, and opportunities for intervention are available using these social platforms.  There are a few negative affects as well.  Privacy and dissemination of false information are key negative attributes of using social media in these ways.

Vaccine Strategies

Researchers are exploring the parallels between a person’s social media life and their real-world lives as opportunities for vaccine strategies.  The general premise is that people who are “central” in social media sectors (have many friends, actively communication, etc.) are likely central in their real-world networks.  Targeting these more active and popular individuals with vaccinations may stop the spread of disease for one group or population to another because the “social bridge would be terminated.”  Enys Mones of the Technical University of Denmark explains, “If you are a hub for your friends in the sense that you have many contacts via phone calls or on Facebook, making you a bridge between diverse communities, chances are high you are also likely to be a bridge to connect those communities in the case of an epidemic, such as influenza.”  No pressure mommy blogger.  No pressure.  The idea of identifying these “central members” and focusing counter-measures on them during times of limited resources for vaccination can offer a preemptive strike against spreading illness from group to group.

 Alternative Surveillance

Social media platforms offer the opportunity for alternative surveillance on a large scale.  The anonymous nature of these outlets is conducive for honest feedback and sharing of information.  This is particularly true of younger populations who might not be as honest in face-to-face scenarios.

This alternative surveillance can also offer additional data to epidemiologists that are not reported to health departments or medical officials.  It can also help reveal more accurate viewpoints, particularly on topics of a sensitive nature.  Even though they need to, people aren’t always forthcoming about their medical needs to their doctors because they are uncomfortable to talk about taboo subjects such as poop, pain during sex, or other very personal health problems.  Offering advertising softening the discussion and potential public health surveys can assist people on both sides of the conversation.

Additionally, public health authorities can monitor public profile information and trends that allow investigators to identify disease onset and allow them to verify and investigate outbreaks before they become, as they say in the digital world, “viral.”  This allows for timely estimates and helps epidemiologists forecast disease incidence, which can help intervention opportunities be more effective.

Tracking trending topic such as #flu or #donteatat can point investigators, albeit unofficially to one direction or another much sooner than waiting for enough patients to present with the same illness and initiating interviewing approaches to investigate sources.  With all of this digital data at our fingertips, why wouldn’t epidemiologists use it?  It wouldn’t surprise me if this became a new section in public health epidemiology departments.

 Opportunities for Intervention

The sharing nature of the online community offers opportunities to dispense information to targeted individuals.  This type of targeting is routinely used in advertising algorithms to present particular demographics with targeted ads or use of search engine results to prompt appropriate targeted ads.

These ads can be targeted to the unvaccinated populations.  A study found that vaccination sentiments on Twitter closely matched vaccination rates reported by the CDC across different U.S Department of Health and Human Service regions.  Those clusters who have indicated negative vaccination sentiments represent clusters of unprotected individuals who might not just become ill, but then spread that illness to others.  Advertising to these individuals may provide some intervention that might promote behavioral changes towards vaccination or even perhaps a healthier lifestyle.

Negative Impacts

While there are many positive impacts of the epidemiological and intervention activities using social media trends and profile information, there can be negative impacts as well.  These negative impacts include privacy concerns and distribution of false information.

Unfortunately, anyone with Internet access can write information and formulate it to look credible.  Sometimes real information becomes skewed and it is shared over and over again that is becomes difficult to identify which version is true.  For this reason, public health departments and other government organizations are more active now than ever on social media.  This provides true information and helps to combat the potential hysteria that might come with false information distribution.  Even your local health department likely has a Twitter account and actively seeks out false information.

 All of this use of profile and searching data can seem a bit too “Big Brother,” where nothing you do online is private.  Honestly, most people should operate under this assumption because for the most part it is true.  We are being tracked and targeted daily for marketing purposes.  When it becomes about medical aspects, people begin to get nervous.  Rightfully so.

Positive Notes

Like it or not we live in an online society.  Many of us spend just as much time communicating and working on some sort of device as we do in our real world non-digital lives.  That being said, how do you feel about this medical invasion of privacy?  Do you appreciate the positive aspects of social media medical surveillance or does this push you one step further from pulling the plug?