Detangling the Social Media Web

Social media is an imperfect data source that researchers shouldn’t ignore


The media have been abuzz lately with coverage on fake news and the misuse of data by popular social networking sites. This issue about using social media data for questionable purposes has raised users’ concerns over data privacy and has made researchers wary of using these data as a reliable information source.

Researchers are rightfully cautious. Social media continues to evolve and generates vast quantities of data. Navigating these changes and wading through so much information have made conducting rigorous research around social media data difficult.

However, social media is increasingly the primary way in which people send, receive, create and consume information. It has been widely accepted across demographic groups, and new generations of digital natives are using it more and more as their primary form of interaction. This means that social media data are not something we as researchers can ignore.

Social Media Data in Public Health Campaigns

Although far from a magic bullet, social media and digital data can help fill gaps in existing research and give public health researchers access to populations that are hard to reach through more traditional methods like surveying. If gathered and analyzed in a methodologically rigorous way, the data can also be helpful in public health campaigns.

Social media data can help public health educators evaluate their media campaigns by measuring the reach of their campaign messages and figuring out which messages their target audience finds most compelling. These data can also be used to gauge opinions about areas of concern to public health by identifying influencers and sources of false or misleading information that can sway public opinion. For example, social media data can help determine sources that create and/or spread false information to promote e-cigarettes to children and teens, and whether those target audience members are engaging with the harmful messages. Finally, social media data can be used to monitor emerging harmful health behaviors, like vaping and e-cigarettes, by warning public health professionals and policymakers of potential areas needing increased regulation.    

Collaboration Is Key

Extracting helpful information from social media data requires more than just the ability to keep up with technological and regulatory changes—extracting this information starts with good questions. Subject matter experts must be involved to identify important questions that researchers aren’t able to answer using traditional data sources. From there, data scientists with technological know-how are needed to extract and scrub data. Finally, communication scientists provide context and focus on patterns and trends that emerge from the data. With our multidisciplinary expertise, RTI International has an opportunity to advance a comprehensive approach to social media analysis.

Despite the many pitfalls associated with social media data, researchers cannot ignore this data source. If used correctly, it has enormous potential to address public health challenges—including gun control, the opioid epidemic and substance abuse. Researchers should not shy away from using social media data; rather, they should rise to the challenge by collaborating with both data and communication scientists. This combination of asking the right questions, methodological rigor, and creativity will contribute to more thorough research around social media data to advance the approach to social media analysis.