Study examines retweet factors

By Emily Dao, Staff Writer

With roughly 20 percent of Americans using Twitter, a growing amount of health professionals have turned to the social media platform to spread important messages about public health.

A study led by Dolores Albarracin, professor in LAS, and Sophie Lohmann, graduate student in LAS, examined the four factors contributing to how many times a public health message got retweeted, if at all.

The four factors that increase message dissemination, otherwise known as reasons an audience isn’t engaging with a tweet, on Twitter are employing fear-related words, having a higher word count, adding an image and not including a link in the tweet.

The research team studied over 20,000 tweets about HIV posted within the range of 2010 to 2017, from 37 different HIV experts.

“You can get messages from Twitter for research purposes and other purposes for free, so it’s quite easy to collect this data,” Lohmann said. “We already had this database with a lot of tweets about HIV, and we knew that this was a good opportunity to look at what in those tweets led to them being retweeted or not.”

Benjamin White, co-author of the study and graduate student in LAS, said 80 to 90 percent of the health departments Lohmann worked with wanted more data on how people were viewing their messages on social media.

“This was something the community really wanted, and there wasn’t a lot of work done in this public domain on how messages are being spread, so that’s where our paper came from,” White said.

According to the study, only 52 percent of original tweets sampled from experts’ accounts were disseminated further. In other words, although people following health experts on Twitter were seeing the message, if the message wasn’t retweeted, the information wouldn’t be spread to people who weren’t following that expert.

“People who are related to health are more likely to be following public health accounts,” White said. “But those individuals will have family, friends and work associates who might not be in health, so dissemination through these tweets could get to audiences that may not be directly following a public health account.”

Other factors that increased message dissemination included using more hashtags and if a celebrity tweeted a message that a health expert later retweeted.

“If you’re a small health department, you don’t have that many people paying attention to you,” Lohmann said. “But if Rihanna posts something, many more people will see it, and if people also see that a public health professional retweeted it, it might be a sign that that’s good information that experts agree with.”

Lohmann said the main goal of this study was to see how health experts could use social media to reach out to a broader audience in communicating important health information. With the growing presence of technology, she said experts publishing information weren’t the only people benefiting from social media, but the recipients of these messages were as well.  

“(It) makes it much easier for individual people to find information that they seek,” Lohmann said. “It’s not just your doctor you see maybe twice a year who can give you that information, but you can inform yourself faster just on your own terms.”

Man Pui Chan, co-author of the study and research assistant professor in LAS, said the study could also be used for other social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook. With this study, the team hopes to use tactics they analyzed and learn more about how and why certain messages are spread and the impact they have on the reader.

“The results do not limit to Twitter, but apply to other social media that share the microblogging feature,” Chan said in an email. “Public health professionals can use these recommendations to maximize their reach to the audience on multiple social media (platforms).”

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