Leveraging Social Media to Promote Public Health Knowledge: Example of Cancer Awareness via Twitter

JMIR Public Health Surveill. 2016 Apr 28;2(1):e17. doi: 10.2196/publichealth.5205. eCollection Jan-Jun 2016.


Background: As social media becomes increasingly popular online venues for engaging in communication about public health issues, it is important to understand how users promote knowledge and awareness about specific topics.

Objective: The aim of this study is to examine the frequency of discussion and differences by race and ethnicity of cancer-related topics among unique users via Twitter.

Methods: Tweets were collected from April 1, 2014 through January 21, 2015 using the Twitter public streaming Application Programming Interface (API) to collect 1% of public tweets. Twitter users were classified into racial and ethnic groups using a new text mining approach applied to English-only tweets. Each ethnic group was then analyzed for frequency in cancer-related terms within user timelines, investigated for changes over time and across groups, and measured for statistical significance.

Results: Observable usage patterns of the terms "cancer", "breast cancer", "prostate cancer", and "lung cancer" between Caucasian and African American groups were evident across the study period. We observed some variation in the frequency of term usage during months known to be labeled as cancer awareness months, particularly September, October, and November. Interestingly, we found that of the terms studied, "colorectal cancer" received the least Twitter attention.

Conclusions: The findings of the study provide evidence that social media can serve as a very powerful and important tool in implementing and disseminating critical prevention, screening, and treatment messages to the community in real-time. The study also introduced and tested a new methodology of identifying race and ethnicity among users of the social media. Study findings highlight the potential benefits of social media as a tool in reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

Keywords: Twitter; awareness; breast cancer; colorectal cancer; disparities; lung cancer; prostate cancer; social media.