July 26, 2012 at 6:40 PM ET
Does Twitter influence whether you'll get a flu shot, or does it simply map the prevalence of flu vaccinations in your area?
That's what researchers at Penn State University are trying to figure out in a study that examines 478,000 tweets referring to the flu in late 2009, New Scientist reports. A team of students examined posts to the social network, sent out when vaccinations against the swine flu pandemic became available in the United States. Turns out, if people in your area tweet a lot of smack against flu vaccines, it's likely that you — or at least those around you — aren't getting vaccinated.
Likewise, if you're in an area where people are typing out pro-vaccination tweets, you and those around you are more likely to get vaccinations.
Of course, researchers are mostly worried about people who aren't getting vaccinated, and hope to use such social media mapping to educate those in areas with large numbers of so-called “vaccine resisters,” people opposed to vaccines for reasons unsupported by science — or public health experts.
So does that make social media the cause ... or the solution? The answer seems to be both. "Preliminary analysis shows it is very likely that negative opinions of vaccination are contagious on online social networks," Salathé said. His team continues to analyze the unprecedented data provided by social media, and work out ways to help educate the public.