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Experts Warn about Health Misinformation from Twitter

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

A small number of Twitter users could easily cause a spread of health misinformation, found in a study that examined Twitter updates about antibiotic use. Experts warn that though the numbers of incidences were small, Twitter could easily have a negative impact on public health.

Scientists analyzed 52,153 "tweets" that mentioned antibiotics between March 13, 2009, and July 31, 2009, categorizing Twitter updates as “general use, advice/information, side effects/negative reactions, diagnosis, resistance, misunderstanding and/or misuse, positive reactions, animals, wanting/needing, cost and other.” The researchers then randomly monitored updates from 1000 updates, and then took things further by investigating instances of antibiotic misunderstanding or abuse.

The researchers looked for keywords that included phrases like flu and antibiotic, or cold and antibiotic, and leftover antibiotics, and share and leftover antibiotics. The most common category of “tweets” involved general use of antibiotics discussing days of use and their effect on feeling better. .

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The second most popular category was “advice and information”, some of which included personal advice and the third category about antibiotic use on Twitter was complaints and side effects that could negatively impact the health of others. Examples include “those antibiotics made me want to die”, and more specific information about vomiting as a side effect of taking antibiotics.

"As people change how they interact, going from passive consumption to active creation of content on the Internet, social networks have become increasingly important sources of information," said Cathryn Murphy, RN, PhD, CIC, APIC 2010 president. "These findings are a reminder that we need to continue to monitor networks such as Twitter and explore ways to positively impact public health using social networks."

The researchers suggest that misinformation form health updates could be easily spread on Twitter, found in their analysis of tweets about antibiotics. They also suggest that healthcare professionals can gather information about misinformation regarding antibiotics from Twitter updates, or even use social networking to promote positive health behaviors and give valuable information of their own via tweets.