Twitter Listening Tracks Zika Rumors

The Zika virus, a disease spread mostly by the common Aedes species mosquito, continues to make headlines around the world. It has captured our attention with its confirmed links to horrifying birth defects and sexual transmissibility. The Rio Olympics highlighted concerns, as thousands of spectators and athletes traveled to a country where the outbreak is in full swing. All theses factors give researchers a unique platform to evolve social media as a tool in managing disease.

As with many epidemics, the response to Zika has generated its share of controversy. Aerial spraying, contraception campaigns and a lack of treatment options have combine with increased social media access to create a combustible mix of fear and misinformation. During the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa, similar forces caused many people to avoid treatment and ultimately led to a much higher death toll.

So, with a new Zika vaccine in development, researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the Georgia College of Public Health and George Washington University decided to monitor Twitter to understand and track misinformation in real time. Using this knowledge, public heath agencies can quickly target education programs to counter false claims and make the global vaccination effort more effective.

With Twitter listening, the research team members unearthed several concerning Zika-related rumors. Some tweets denied the link between Zika and birth defects, while others accused drug companies of making up the entire epidemic to sell vaccines.  The Johns Hopkins news release states “…the method gave researchers a fast insight into what people were talking about online. They identified nearly 140,000 Tweets between Jan. 1 and April 29, 2016 that contained the keywords “vaccine” and “Zika.” They observed a number of tweeted claims that questioned why government officials were so anxious to obtain a vaccine.”

Lead author Mark Dredze is deeply concerned about the implications. “Once people have made up their minds about something, it’s hard for them to change their opinions. Unfortunately, the people most affected are from the most vulnerable communities, with little access to the facts.” This latest study builds upon Dredze’s pioneering work in the collection and study of social media data to monitor flu cases, mental illness trends and other health concerns. His research on the Zika epidemic is just another example of why social media monitoring is proving to be the most potent global health tool the world has seen in decades.