• COVID-19 has seen an unprecedented, rapid influx of health care information on social media.
  • Many medical professionals now use Twitter to quickly disseminate coronavirus news and data.
  • Data analysts are tracking more than 100 hashtags related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including #coronavirus and #COVID19. 
  • Examining tweets and posts allows data analysts to understand which messages are successful and stand out in crowded social media interface. 

Video Transcript

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JOHN WHYTE: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. How many of you are on Twitter? What about Facebook? I'm sure a bunch of you have an Instagram account. What role does social media play in addressing COVID-19?

To help answer these questions, I've asked Thomas Lee to join me. And I want to read you his bio from his Twitter handle which says, co-founder of Symplur and the Healthcare Hashtag Project, and spends days connecting dots in healthcare social media. So that's what I want to know, Tom, thanks for joining me.

THOMAS LEE: Glad to be here.

JOHN WHYTE: Tell us what Symplur does, and tell us how you're connecting the dots.

THOMAS LEE: Sure. Uh, so we are after a social media analytics company. And our platform is really the only one, uh, on the market that has been built from the ground up specifically for the healthcare industry. And so that's all we've ever done, all we plan on doing, and it allows us to kind of-- of just look about that-- that one niche market, big market, big niche, but a very unique one.

And we've been monitoring various health and healthcare-related conversations in that space now for almost 10 years. Uh, predominantly on Twitter is what our real area of focus is, which seems to be where the healthcare conversation really is.

JOHN WHYTE: And you tweeted, a, um, a article that talked about using social media for rapid information dissemination in a pandemic.

THOMAS LEE: There's a lot of health care professionals on Twitter, and more and more every year. And-- which is a great thing, because that helps to drown out a lot of the misinformation, uh, that's out there. So we really like seeing that. In the case of this pandemic, one of the challenges has been, just what you said, there has been this-- this influx of information that it has just-- it's just not been seen before.

I mean, you know, we watched from the very first few little inklings of seeing there's something happening in China to this explosion that just became incomprehensible. So one of the things that we did is we've designed a series of dashboards, as we call them, that-- that we've kind of tried to rein in some of this conversation, so that we can just look at, uh, short periods of time, maybe the last three to 12 hours or so.

And then we carved it up to see, specifically, what are, perhaps, the, uh, infectious disease physicians talking about, what are the virologists talking about, or what are the journalists focused on. And we're able to kind of segment it like this so that we can raise those voices that weren't that going to be useful, and kind of get some of that-- that otherwise-- it's what we call noise, out of the picture.

To give you an idea of how much this has-- has grown and how rapidly it grew, I think it first came up on our radar in the first half of January. And we could just see, you know, a few tweets coming in talking about this unusual flu, uh, pneumonia, coronavirus started to come up in the first, you know, maybe a week or two of January.

And-- and within two weeks, we were just experiencing tweet volume like we just had not seen before. When we're following a term, for example, like coronavirus or #coronavirus, we capture 100% of the tweets that are containing those.

Uh, And we actually had to dial that back to just a sampling, because it became-- the volume just became so much. And by the end of the month, we were probably seeing about, I would say around 400,000 tweets per day on a 1% sampling of those two terms.

JOHN WHYTE: And that's only the tweets that use the hashtags, correct?

THOMAS LEE: The #coronavirus or the keyword coronavirus. But we're actually tracking over 100 different hashtags related to, uh, the whole COVID-19 pandemic.

JOHN WHYTE: What's the closest thing that you've seen similar to-- to this? Anything in your career?

THOMAS LEE: I-- I would say several years ago during the Ebola outbreak. But even that is like a-- a drop in the bucket compared to what we're seeing right now. We've been asked what we think the tweet volume is every day on-- on this subject area.

And we used to be able to back into that number, because we were doing a sampling of 1%, and so we could just multiply that and-- and figure it out. And at that time, that was late February, and we were estimating around 50 million tweets per day. So when people ask me that in March or April, my response was, probably well over 100 million tweets per day. And it could be considerably more than that.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, why have you focused on Twitter as opposed to, say, you know, instead of tweets, to look at videos on YouTube? Why Twitter?

THOMAS LEE: Uh, first off, Twitter is just, uh, it is completely open. It's all public. And-- and so we're able to capture these entire conversations. And it's a mix of-- all stakeholders are involved in this, and it seems to just have been the place that everybody has gravitated toward.

And-- and if something is happening on YouTube, it's going to be shared on Twitter, right? I-- I promise you that right away. But it's that-- that immediacy, the open public nature of it. There's, you know, no conversation is behind some privacy wall or something like that. And-- and makes things able to be discussed amongst different stakeholders.

JOHN WHYTE: Why do you think it appeals to health professionals? They're a tough bunch to get them opted in social, and they can be somewhat reticent in their professional reputations to be out there. So why are they attracted to Twitter?

THOMAS LEE: Uh, you know, that-- that's a good question. That's a good question, because I do think that health care has been slow to adopt change in general. I think that's been trend. But I-- I can see an awful lot of growth happening with younger people getting into the profession.

You know, they've been on social media for a number of years. It's kind of just part of their DNA, if you will, and they-- and they carry that into their professional life. I-- I think that a lot of it has to do with conferences myself.

As conferences have started to see the-- the value that social media brings and the ability to spread their message and their encouragement of-- of that society's membership, or something like that. But whatever the reason may be, it is definitely on a growth curve. We-- we definitely see that. We-- we hear that Twitter has flattened out, it's plateaued. Not in healthcare, I promise you that.

JOHN WHYTE: What tips would you have for physicians who want to search Twitter for-- for content? Is it, you know, looking at hashtags? What advice would you have?

THOMAS LEE: I was just going to say that, hashtags. The hashtags-- people make fun of hashtags sometimes, but-- but they're great. It's a way of kind of indexing conversations.

And, uh, I find that a conversation that uses a hashtag rather than just the key word for whatever the disease, or condition, or whatever it is you're perusing in, tends to be a more of a purposeful message in that tweet. It's been thought about. And-- and it's a way of, like I say, categorizing and being able to bring up a conversation that's-- that's coherent.

JOHN WHYTE: Can you give us some examples of hashtags that you've seen, uh, relating to COVID and their impact?

THOMAS LEE: The-- the ones that most people gravitate to are #coronavirus and #COVID19, which are just crazy, just because of the level of involvement on those. And so, um, as I mentioned earlier, you know, we track over 100 hashtags related to this, and people do try to isolate their conversations.

And-- and probably one of the best examples of that in the medical community is COVID N Cancer. It's COVID, letter N, cancer, which has kind of allowed the oncology community to be able to isolate their conversation, and again, get away from that noise, and be able to talk to their colleague about the issues as they pertain to their area of expertise.

And-- and so there's-- there's a tendency, I think, that people like to have their-- their own hashtag. We see it with a lot of countries. There'll be COVID-19 and then the country name, or abbreviation, or something like that. And we see the same thing in different specialties in medicine.

JOHN WHYTE: Is it better to create your own hashtag or one that is very popular? It sounds like you're suggesting, don't necessarily use just a hashtag that, you know, is always the one that's trending.

THOMAS LEE: Yeah. I think you can look at some-- at a hashtag and decide, is this-- is this going to be a fit for me? Will I be heard? Will I be able to find what I'm looking for? So a little bit of exploration is worthwhile. And if you're not finding something that is really a good fit, you can create one. That's the thing about hashtags. They're organic.

JOHN WHYTE: And what can we learn, from you, know much of the analytics that you're doing? What-- what are some of the key takeaways?

THOMAS LEE: You know, if, um, if you're trying to understand, uh, what type of messages work, how to spread a word effectively, uh, you know, we-- we look at the characteristics of what tweet was successful in this discussion, or at this event, or what have you, and who interacted with it, and why.

And was it the choice of words or what was it? But we can learn from what makes effective messaging. And then if you have something that you really want to get out there and rise above the noise, and-- and to be well received, you'll have a-- a better understanding if you see how it's worked in the past.

JOHN WHYTE: Thomas Lee, co-founder of Symplur. I want to thank you for taking time to talk to us today about the role of social media and how we can connect the dots, so thank you.

THOMAS LEE: You're very welcome. Glad I could be here.

JOHN WHYTE: And thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte.