During the 2016 Zika virus outbreak, the Annenberg Public Policy Center surveyed tens of thousands of people over more than seven months to learn about the American public’s behavior, attitudes and knowledge about the virus as it spread to the United States. Yet over the same period, an even larger group of people were talking with each other about the virus in another venue entirely—on social media.
Now, a new analysis conducted jointly by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois finds a correlation between the Zika topics discussed on Twitter and the survey results. “Our results demonstrated that it is possible to uncover topics of discussion from Twitter communications that are associated with Zika-related attitudes, knowledge and behaviors of populations over time,” the researchers said.
The researchers, including Dolores Albarracín, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of the study, and co-principal investigator Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), wrote that “social media data can be used as a complementary source of information alongside traditional data sources to gauge patterns of attitudes, knowledge and behaviors of a population.”
The researchers used data from APPC’s Annenberg Science Knowledge (ASK) survey about Zika, conducted by landline and cell phone from February-August 2016. The 33 weeks of survey data included 33,193 respondents (about 1,000 per week) who were asked about their attitudes, behavior and knowledge of Zika.
The researchers found moderate to high correlations between Zika-related Twitter topics and survey responses. They found, for instance, that during times when the survey found greater knowledge about microcephaly, a birth defect that can be caused when a pregnant woman is infected by Zika, there was more Zika-related Twitter discussion on Zika protection and travel.
Dr. Albarracín said the study set out to determine whether the digital “traces of human behavior and communication online” could be a cost-effective way to predict responses to a national survey. She said the study also refutes a popular misconception.
“There’s a sector of the population, including members of the scientific community, who dismiss social media as biased. That is clearly not always the case,” she said. “Social media can be used to track important problems and therefore is also likely to be a great tool for informing the public. Whether or not the actual people who are tweeting are a representative sample of the U.S., the content overall ends up being representative of the concerns of the public as a whole.”