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Promote health using social media?

Information in the age of Internet no longer flows one way from media to audience. Instead audiences create media as well as comment on it. Social media like Facebook have been around for seven years; various news websites have started to allow for comments to virtually every news story; Amazon not only allows potential buyers to read prior buyers' reviews of the product, but also recommend to them books that they may be interested in based on what "people like you" have bought.

It is important to understand the social impact online recommendation system because whatever media product it accompanies - a piece of news, a music video, a commercial, or an anti-smoking public service announcement - the information carried by the recommendation system synchronizes with the media product and thus becomes a part of the message sent to the audience.

I got the feeling when attending to various health related conferences that everyone in our field is excited about social media and the interactivity that internet allows. Health campaigners as well as intervention practitioners constantly talked about the social buzz they created with Facebook fan page, twitter, blogs, and YouTube with the assumption that the "buzz", especially the positive buzz is a good thing. However plausible this assumption sounds intuitively, there is very little empirical evidence. In fact, our recent study (presented as a poster at the Annual CECCR Grantee Meeting two weeks ago) found quite the opposite: not only negative comments but also positive comments significantly decreased smokers' perceived effectiveness of high-quality anti-smoking ads.

Health practitioners need to raise some caution when adopting social media to promote health. Interactivity is a double edged sword. Sometimes it helps to send the message to more people, but sometimes it twists the message during the diffusion process and creates unintentional effects that backfire.

Rui Shi
Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania
2011 CCRC Doctoral Fellow

Written by CCRC at 13:02

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