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UAlbany professor examines effectiveness of public health tweeting

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A University at Albany professor analyzed over 150,000 Twitter messages from public health agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering clues to make future public health messaging more effective.

Jeannette Sutton, a professor at UAlbany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, co-authored a recent study that examined messages shared on Twitter by public health agencies between February and April, when the pandemic exploded to Americans’ attention.

Messages that shared information about the impacts of the virus, its spread and actions people could take to protect themselves were mostly likely to be shared more broadly on Twitter, the researchers found, and messages that contained videos and images also benefited a message’s reach.

“Many health agencies, especially at the local level, do not have a high reach to begin with,” Sutton said in an UAlbany article summarizing the research, which was recently published in PLOS ONE, an online platform of peer-reviewed research.

The study offers clues into ways that health agencies can continue to communicate important health information and notes a particular interest among the public for practical and actionable advice.

“Our work has shown that, in this uncertain environment, the public has been attentive to – and likely to retransmit – a wide range of practical information regarding the impacts of COVID-19,” Sutton and co-authors Carter Butts and Scott Renshaw wrote in their conclusion.

Different elements, like the inclusion of videos and other media, improved the number of shares particular messages received when posted to Twitter, the researchers found; exclamation marks and hashtags were less impactful.

“In the case of the pandemic, we find that the inclusion of media, both videos and photos, leads to significantly greater message sharing,” according to the study.

The researchers also found that health agencies often replied through social media directly to others engaging with their content – even if those directed messages did not result in broader sharing – suggesting an effort to engage directly with constituents.

“While directed messages do not lead to increase message retransmission, they may serve to increase trust in the organization due to its responsiveness,” the researchers concluded.

As the pandemic continues, the researchers recommend public health agencies develop strategies for publicizing important public health information and continue to update those streatgies based on what works and what doesn’t.

“It is unlikely in the case of COVID-19 that conditions can be expected to fully stabilize in the near future, and risk communicators within official agencies need to establish processes to continuously re-assess and re-evaluate messaging practices in light of changing events,” the researchers concluded.

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