Using Twitter to gain an insight into public views and opinions for the Ebola epidemic

The World Health Organisation writes that Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever, is a very severe and fatal illness with an average fatality rate of 50%. The first outbreak of Ebola occurred in 1976. The first case of Ebola, outside of West Africa, was reported in the U.S on September 19th 2014. The current Ebola outbreak has taken more lives and infected more people than all the other outbreaks combined. And Twitter provides a platform for people to express their views and opinions on Ebola.

Chew and Eysenbach, for example, used Twitter to monitor the mentions of Swine Flu during the 2009 pandemic. They found that Twitter provided health authorities with the potential to become aware of the concerns, which were raised by the public. Similarly, Szomszor, Kostkova, and Louis examined Swine Flu on Twitter and found that Twitter offers the ability to sample large populations for health sentiment (public views and opinions). Signorini, Segre, and Polgreen also found that by using Twitter it was possible to understand user’s interests and concerns during the Swine Flu outbreak.

In 2010, Chew and Eysenbach wrote that Swine Flu was the first global pandemic which had occurred in the age of Web 2.0, and argued that this was a unique opportunity to investigate the role of technology for public health. Fast forward to the current outbreak of Ebola, this is the first time a global outbreak of Ebola has occurred in the age of Web 2.0.
And as the number of Twitter users has increased since 2010, there is the possibility to examine the recent Ebola outbreak on a larger scale.

In relation to the Ebola outbreak on Twitter. A study by Oluwafemi, Elia and Rolf published last year examined misinformation for Ebola on Twitter. This study found that the most common types of misinformation on Ebola were, that ingesting a plant ‘Ewedu’, blood transfusions, or drinking salt water could cure Ebola. Another study by Jin et al, which was published last year, found that there were conspiracy theories, innuendos, and rumours on Twitter related to Ebola. Jin et al looked at the time period between late September to late October (2014). Among some of the rumours reported, was that the Ebola vaccine only worked on white people, that Ebola patients had risen from the dead, and that terrorists would contract Ebola and spread it around the world.

Therefore, Twitter has the potential to provide insight into public views and opinions related to the Ebola outbreak, which would allow health authorities to become aware of the public concerns. Furthermore, by examining the rumours related to Ebola health authorities will be able to dispel false information via new or existing health campaigns.

In the next post I will examine the language dynamics of tweets related to Ebola.

Acknowledgements 

I would like to thank Jennifer Salter, from the health informatics research group, for reading and providing extremely valuable feedback on an earlier version of this blog post.

References

Chew, C., & Eysenbach, G. (2010). Pandemics in the age of Twitter: Content analysis of tweets during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. PLOS ONE, 5(11).

Fang Jin; Wei Wang; Liang Zhao; Dougherty, E.; Yang Cao; Chang-Tien Lu; Ramakrishnan, N., “Misinformation Propagation in the Age of Twitter,” Computer , vol.47, no.12, pp.90,94, Dec. 2014
doi: 10.1109/MC.2014.361

Signorini A, Segre AM, Polgreen PM. (2011) The Use of Twitter to Track Levels of Disease Activity and Public Concern in the U.S. during the Influenza A H1N1 Pandemic. PLoS ONE 6(5): e19467. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019467

Szomszor, M., Kostkova, P., & St Louis, C. (2011). Twitter informatics: Tracking and understanding public reaction during the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic. In Proceedings – 2011 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on Web Intelligence, WI 2011 (Vol. 1, pp. 320–323). doi:10.1109/WI-IAT.2011.311

WHO. (2015). WHO | Ebola virus disease. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/ [Last accessed 20/01/2015].

Oyeyemi Sunday Oluwafemi, Gabarron Elia, Wynn Rolf. Ebola, Twitter, and misinformation: a dangerous combination? BMJ 2014; 349 :g6178

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