A recently published report suggested that social media postings through established public health sources engage a sizable portion of the general public, with emerging public health risks such as Ebola drawing many users who would not otherwise participate in these online discussions.
“Social media channels are popular sources of health-related information, but online audiences differ in their information behaviors,” Yulia A. Strekalova, MS, MBA, of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida, wrote. “Active participation of audiences in communication and information exchange provides an opportunity to monitor for misconceptions, unanswered questions and information needs among the general public.”
Yulia A. Strekalova
Strekalova collected data posted on and associated with the CDC’s Facebook page from March 18, 2014 to Oct. 31, 2014 to examine trends in social media engagement and behavior. CDC posts and user comments were filtered for inclusion of the word “Ebola,” to focus the investigation on the largest health crises occurring during this time period. Information concerning total posting frequency, quantity of unique users, sex of users, comment length, comment posts per unique user, and time delay between a CDC post and user comment were collected for analysis.
Strekalova collected 836 CDC posts and 35,973 comments published within the study period, with Ebola being the subject of 18.78% of posts and 63.79% of comments. Among the 14,619 unique users who commented, 14,305 had adequate information available and were subsequently included in the analysis. Among these, 57.93% commented on Ebola posts, 32.23% commented on non-Ebola posts, and 9.84% commented on both. Users who commented on Ebola posts did so an average of 2.29 times, with an average comment length of 156.85 characters.
Strekalova also observed differences in posting behavior based on gender. Women submitted more comments to the CDC Facebook page overall (P < .05), but there were fewer comments per user (P < .05). In addition, women’s comments were significantly more likely to receive greater attention in the form of user “Likes,” contain more characters and be published earlier.
Strekalova noted that these data highlight two different audiences: those primarily interested in emergent health risks and those consistently engaging with nonrisk information. She wrote that in emerging risk scenarios such as Ebola, established communication channels should be prepared for an influx of new message recipients.
“Audience engagement data collected by the social media sites allow for exploration of the behavior of large audience groups,” Strekalova wrote. “As such, active communication behavior exhibited by social media users, which manifests in commenting on the posts, can act as an indicator that these users are participating in the information consumption and contributing to its interpretation.” – by Dave Muoio
Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.