What Reddit can teach us about public health concerns

Not nearly as abrasive as Twitter, and much more communal than Instagram, Reddit has emerged as the social media platform of choice for the moderate web surfer. It’s social media that downplays appearances and prioritizes substance. Most active Reddit users don’t even have a profile picture.

Now, researchers from The University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School believe Reddit can be used for far more than just participating in the latest AMA or browsing memes. According to their latest study, keeping tabs on popular Reddit public health topics, terms, and discussions can seriously help health organizations and officials get a better idea of what people are concerned, confused, and frustrated about during this pandemic.

Many among us have been disappointed, to say the least, with the responses and recommendations given by various public health organizations and governments over the past few months. Many of these groups have been slow to issue official guidelines on important pandemic practices like proper hand washing, clearly defined social distancing rules, and mask-wearing policies.

By using machine learning to track surges in particular health topics on popular platforms like Reddit, the team at UPenn say organizations and officials alike can better understand where they need to focus their attention.

“Public health priorities do not always align with community priorities, and the success of public health efforts often depends on having a plan to address community concerns,” says Daniel Stokes, a research fellow with the Center for Emergency Care Policy and the Center for Digital Health at Penn Medicine, in a university release. “Having a source like Reddit that is directly tied to people’s thoughts could prove invaluable in crafting plans that meet people where they are.”

Reddit was chosen specifically for this research because, while it is just as unfiltered and up-to-date as other platforms, it’s also commonly viewed as a somewhat more trustworthy source of information and news sharing. That being said, there is still plenty of misinformation out there on Reddit. On that note, though, tracking popular health discussions on social media can also help officials keep an eye on dangerous false stories and give them ample time to address lies before they are spread extensively around the web.

So, what could Reddit have told health authorities over the past few months? Data collected from Reddit showed the study’s authors that mid-March saw a big influx of questions about whether or not it was safe to go outside. The CDC didn’t issue official guidelines for visiting parks and playgrounds until April. People were wondering for weeks about what to do, and this data could have helped the CDC recognize that.

Similar results were noted regarding hand washing, wearing masks, and pandemic-related financial worries. The subject of handwashing peaked on Reddit between March 3rd-6th, the very early stages of the pandemic in the US and long before state and federal governments started issuing guidelines. Users discussing financial anxiety surged by almost 50% by the end of March compared to the beginning of that month.

Regarding wearing a mask, while health officials didn’t declare any set guidelines for covering one’s face until April, Reddit data showed that masks were among the most talked-about topics throughout all of March.

“The CDC didn’t make their recommendations on wearing masks in public until early April, so it is interesting to see that masks were being discussed a great deal prior to that recommendation,” Stokes explains. “Perhaps it was a sign that many people were ready for these guidelines earlier.”

All of the Reddit data used for this study was collected from the main COVID-19 Sub-Reddit (r/coronavirus) between March 3rd and March 31st. Machine learning was then used to sift through all of the data and identify 50 main discussion topics. Then, 10 of those topics were picked out as the most relevant to the researchers’ three main concerns: impact on daily life, the public’s response to health measures, and an overall sense of the pandemic’s severity.

The team says they’re not done tracking data on r/coronavirus, and another UPenn study is collecting similar data from Twitter.

All in all, researchers just want to help organizations, governments, and policymakers produce more informed and timely decisions during this viral ordeal. This data represents an incredible opportunity to track in real-time what’s on the minds of Americans, from fears and worries to overall public sentiment and mood.

“The success of our public health efforts depends on public buy-in,” Stokes concludes. “Early comparisons to the flu on Reddit may have indicated a gap in public understanding of pandemic severity. Recognizing such gaps can be useful in developing targeted campaigns to close them.”

It feels like public distrust in health organizations has never been higher. Looking at social media data for guidance can help these entities address common concerns and questions faster and more effectively.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.