A computational tool being developed to study vaccination attitudes and behaviors through social media could change the way researchers conduct public health surveillance.
Researchers from UGA, George Washington University and Johns Hopkins University are using the social media platform Twitter to study why people refuse vaccinations. The study is being funded by a five-year, $1.55 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health.
“This study is exciting because it is unlike any social media research done before,” said Karen Hilyard, an assistant professor of health promotion and behavior in the UGA College of Public Health and a co-principal investigator on the project. “We are developing a new methodology that will be faster and cheaper than current survey methods but just as reliable and rigorous. In the process, we will also gather critical information that can help improve public health.”
The research team will use algorithms to compare survey data with Twitter data analyses, measuring billions of tweets against the results of traditional surveys about how people make decisions about vaccines and why. The goal is to enable researchers to use social media as a reliable complement and alternative to more expensive, more time-consuming methods like surveys. Findings will be shared online, available to public health and social science researchers interested in developing and using similar tools to analyze social media data.
Hilyard and her collaborators already have analyzed millions of tweets to gather information on sentiment toward flu vaccinations. The team identified tweets, geo-located the messages and compared their findings to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System. Their results show that states with a higher number of residents who received the flu shot had a higher number of vaccine-positive messages on Twitter.