A recent Penn State study is giving medical personnel reasons to think twice before retweeting.
In the study, 63 undergraduate students were asked to follow fake Twitter accounts over a one-week period. The accounts were run by one of four fictitious people: a doctor with many followers, the same doctor with a few followers, a non-doctor with many followers and a non-doctor with few followers.
The doctors were identified by placing an “MD” after their Twitter username, and the tweets contained controversial messages about weight loss.
The study found that when doctors with many followers retweet, they were seen by subjects as less credible. However, when people who are not in the medical field retweet the messages, instead of originally creating them, they are perceived as more credible.
“The study results imply that when people evaluate online health information on Twitter, they consider all of the following factors: whether a message is originally created by someone or forwarded/retweeted by someone, whether the source is a professional or layperson, and whether the source is popular or not,” wrote Ji Young Lee, the author of the report and a 2008 Penn State master’s degree graduate, in an email.
Lee gave an example of one tweet: “Caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, restrain your appetite, which, in turn, can help weight loss.”
“All these messages were iffy because we couldn’t test the credibility of messages everyone knows to be true,” said Shyam Sundar, distinguished professor in Penn State’s College of Communications and director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, who helped Lee with the study.
The study was unique in that all three of these variables are readily available on Twitter in the form of cues or “mental shortcuts,” Sundar said.
“People may just use these shortcuts to say ‘OK, he knows what he is talking about’ without questioning the information,” Sundar said.”
According to a Penn State Live press release, the study could help medical professionals better understand how to use social media to circulate medical messages.
“The consistency between available cues is quite important,” Lee wrote. “Health planners should pay close attention to the other two cues, popularity and tweet/retweet rather than simply relying on their expertise.”
The study also shows the growing importance for Twitter users to be more critical of what they read.
“Any person can come out and say what it takes to be healthy,” Sundar said.
Michael Hecht, distinguished professor of Communication Arts and Sciences with specialization in health communication, also warned against believing everything you read on Twitter.
“I know it’s a shortcut, but you aren’t going to learn very much from 140 characters,” Hecht said.