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What Does Twitter’s Hashtag “#Diabetes” Tells Us about Public Health?

Jul 10, 2015

Researchers have looked at #diabetes and two measures of Twitter engagement to better understand how health information can spread on social media…

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Washington University in St. Louis researchers found retweeting and favoriting was significantly lower for tweets about the number or percentage of people with diabetes, while favoriting was higher for tweets about health problems associated with diabetes.

“This may indicate that Twitter users are engaging with health information specific to their personal health situation, but not with general information,” says Jenine Harris, lead author of the study published in Preventing Chronic Disease and assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.

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.

They used crowdsourcing through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform 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 report 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 says.

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

Washington University in St. Louis News Release. Jenine K. Harris. Diabetes Topics Associated With Engagement on Twitter. Prev Chronic Dis 2015;12:140402. DOI: