A One-year Experience using Twitter for Public Health

Post date: Nov 23, 2016

I have never been one for social media. I don’t use Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and so on. But I maintain an active blog and want to reach as broad an audience as possible, because chances are if I’m writing about an issue, someone else is interested in the same topic. I decided in November of 2015 to sign up for Twitter to promote new entries on this blog, general public health stories that I found interesting, and advocate for vaccination.

As is the case when you sign up for a new Twitter account you start with 0 followers. By the end of one year, my account had a modest 32 followers. This is in spite of almost no promotion or publicity surrounding my account. So how did 32 people choose to follow my Twitter feed? I selected a handful of individuals and organizations to follow at the outset who represented similar epidemiology or public health interests, sat back, and waited for them to reciprocate. During this year, I posted about 100 tweets.

Here’s what I found: the social network that formed represents individuals with the same interests as me. This is perhaps obvious because of how I chose to connect to other people. While this may be worthwhile for sharing a blog post of mine, it will do little for public health advocacy as these individuals likely share the same viewpoint. Using Google Analytics, I wanted to see if I had more visitors to my blog as a result of Twitter. In short, the answer is no. While there may have been a one-day spike it did not result in any sustained viewership. Most readers still found my blog from Internet searches. For the advocacy part of this experiment I deliberately tried to connect with vaccine hesitant and staunch anti-vaccination groups. This was largely unsuccessful. My sharing of vaccination success stories was swiftly retaliated with stories to the contrary. Our social networks tend to be very insular, and share similar ideologies. Thus as a public health advocate a “get vaccinated” message will do little good, as my followers were likely are already vaccinated, and individuals in the vaccine hesitant camp will not be convinced by a simple tweet (to the contrary, they may even further dig in their heels). Further it seems much of social media is used to only validate ones’ opinions rather than garner new information; it cannot sustain a meaningful dialogue. Yet social media has its place. For organizations and influential opinion leaders in the scientific community, it can reach a vast number of people due to the size of their social networks. To build up a large social network would require extensive self-promotion (not one of my stronger suits) and a bit of luck for publicity. As the networks grow in size they are likely to reach people of varying beliefs, and therefore may have some impact as an advocacy tool. For the humble epidemiologist, I believe social media has limited utility, other than forming relationships with other liked minded individuals. We need to move beyond engaging with people like us: I have found that writing articles for popular press and to some extent scientific journals allows me to reach a broader audience, and not become entrenched in the like mindedness of social media.