Brown School Study Analyzes Twitter Hashtags Associated with Diabetes

Faculty; Public Health; Research

An analysis of Twitter hashtag use on the subject of diabetes provides new insights about spreading health information through social media.

The study, led by Jenine Harris, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, looked at the hashtag #diabetes and its interaction with two Twitter measures of engagement, retweeting and favoriting.

The study found retweeting and favoriting was significantly lower for tweets about the number or percentage of people with diabetes, while favoriting was higher for tweets abou

“This may indicate that Twitter users are engaging with health information specific to their personal health situation, but not with general information,” said Harris, lead author of the study, “Diabetes Topics Associated With Engagement on Twitter,” published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

Researchers took a random sample of 100 tweets with the hashtag #diabetes from each day during a constructed week and used crowdsourcing to classify topics and user types.

Crowdsourcing through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform was used to classify tweets into nine topic categories and their senders into three Twitter-user categories. Tweet and Twitter-user characteristics were then associated with favoriting and retweeting.

Harris and her team found that the most common tweet topics were medical and nonmedical resources for diabetes. Tweets that included information about diabetes-related health problems were positively and significantly associated with engagement. Tweets about diabetes prevalence, nonmedical resources for diabetes, and jokes or sarcasm about diabetes were significantly negatively associated with engagement.

“The widespread use of social media to find health information, and the potential for social media engagement to influence health behavior, presents an opportunity to better understand engagement with diabetes information online,” Harris said.

“Public health professionals working in diabetes and other areas may wish to consider how Twitter topics influence engagement,” she said. “Tweet strategies often include guidance on features to include in a tweet, tweet timing, and other nontopical strategies for increasing engagement.

“However, our results demonstrate that, controlling for tweet and tweet-sender characteristics, tweet topic is influential in whether a tweet is favorited or retweeted,” Harris said.

Co-authors of the study are Sarah Moreland-Russell, PhD, research assistant professor at the Brown School; Charlene Caburnay, PhD, research assistant professor at the Brown School; and Adelina Mart, master’s of public health student at the Brown School.