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The ‘who’ and ‘what’ of #diabetes on Twitter

December 07, 2016 by Mariano Beguerisse-Díaz, Amy K. McLennan, Guillermo Garduño-Hernández, Mauricio Barahona, Stanley J. Ulijaszek

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Social media are being increasingly used for health promotion, yet the landscape of users, messages and interactions in such fora is poorly understood. Studies of social media and diabetes have focused mostly on patients, or public agencies addressing it, but have not looked broadly at all the participants or the diversity of content they contribute. We study Twitter conversations about diabetes through the systematic analysis of 2.5 million tweets collected over 8 months and the interactions between their authors. We address three questions: (1) what themes arise in these tweets?; (2) who are the most influential users?; (3) which type of users contribute to which themes? We answer these questions using a mixed-methods approach, integrating techniques from anthropology, network science and information retrieval such as thematic coding, temporal network analysis, and community and topic detection. Diabetes-related tweets fall within broad thematic groups: health information, news, social interaction, and commercial. At the same time, humorous messages and references to popular culture appear consistently, more than any other type of tweet. We classify authors according to their temporal 'hub' and 'authority' scores. Whereas the hub landscape is diffuse and fluid over time, top authorities are highly persistent across time and comprise bloggers, advocacy groups and NGOs related to diabetes, as well as for-profit entities without specific diabetes expertise. Top authorities fall into seven interest communities as derived from their Twitter follower network. Our findings have implications for public health professionals and policy makers who seek to use social media as an engagement tool and to inform policy design.