Social Data Analytics

What does big data tell us about public health outreach?

April 20, 2022

The Social Data Analytics program held its main launch event featuring Prof. Anabel Quan-Haase on April 11th, 2022. SDA student Rachel Way blogged about the informative lecture:

By Rachel Way

Social media often gets a bad rap (and perhaps often rightfully so). Yet during the COVID-19 pandemic, its full capabilities were unleashed when it quickly became one of the only methods of communicating important information to many people. Almost overnight, apps primarily used for posting pictures of friends and food, soon became crucial public health outreach tools. In her presentation, “What does big data tell us about public health outreach?”, Professor Anabel Quan-Hasse shared her team’s findings on how social media was used, and could have been better utilized, during the early stages of the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, and to this day, many organizations find themselves needing to adapt to a rapidly changing world. While we often think of these adaptations as work-from-home arrangements, organizations responsible for responding to the pandemic also needed to adapt and respond in a way that had never been seen before. Prof. Quan-Hasse and her team rightfully recognized the magnitude that these circumstances would have, not only on future crisis communication, but on public health outreach in general. In her timely presentation, Prof. Quan-Hasse explained how big data and social data could be used to address pressing policy questions as we reflect on the pandemic.

Ultimately, Prof. Quan-Hasse’s team found that social media worked as a key tool in public health outreach, mainly due to its ability to disseminate information in unconventional ways. Looking at Instagram, a vastly understudied platform compared to its rival Twitter, her team found that Instagram was an effective platform, due to its ability to share infographics (a method of conveying complex information in understandable forms) and pictures, which allow for a more personal message in a time when people craved connection. Interestingly, her studies demonstrated that images of frontline workers fared incredibly well, with some of the highest levels of interaction, indicating that personalized, visual information garners the most attention of users amongst the thousands of posts that compete for it. In the end, her data showed that infographics and pictures were an incredibly useful method of portraying complex information to social media users.

While her data highlighted many best practices for public health outreach on social media, as any good academic does, it also posed many questions that will be important to consider as we transition to a post-pandemic world. The main questions that emerged focused on what type of content organizations should be posting. What content would align with their goals, but also resonate well with users and enhance their public outreach? Quandries such as these point to the presentation’s overarching question, and perhaps one that organizations, governments, and individuals seek themselves to answer: how do we gain the trust of people in our globalized, digital world? While potential solutions from collaborating with celebrities to deliberately and publicly fact-checking disinformation were discussed throughout the presentation, ultimately the question remains unanswered.

In a world where social media competes for our attention, these questions are important to ask and while we may not have found the answers yet, I am sure they lie somewhere in social data analytics.


Photos from the Event