How Twitter Could Help Us Track HIV Outbreaks


In the ongoing fight against the HIV epidemic, could new media be the next prevention tool? That’s what a team of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have set to find out.

According to a new study conducted by UCLA researchers, real-time social media data from sites like Twitter could help public health experts effectively track the communities that are engaging in risky sexual behavior and drug abuse. Then, they’ll know where to target their resources to prevent future HIV outbreaks.

The research was spearheaded by UCLA’s Center for Digital Behavior, an interdisciplinary center that seeks to study how social media technologies can be used to predict and influence behavior. The idea is to bring academic researchers and private sector companies together to execute projects that can result in social change.

For this study, researchers collected over 550 million tweets between May and December of 2012. They isolated phrases that could indicate potentially risky behaviors, like “sex” or “get high.” When they plotted those tweets on a map displaying HIV prevalence, they found a “significant relationship” between the areas where people were tweeting about risky behavior and the areas with high rates of HIV infection.

“Ultimately, these methods suggest that we can use ‘big data’ from social media for remote monitoring and surveillance of HIV risk behaviors and potential outbreaks,” Sean Young, the co-director of the UCLA’s Center for Digital Behavior, explained in a statement.

This isn’t a new area of study in the field of public health. Researchers have also used a similar Twitter methodology to track influenza outbreaks. And a recent working paper made the case that watching MTV’s “16 & Pregnant” could encourage viewers to practice safe sex, after compiling teens’ tweets about topics related to birth control. But the UCLA researchers are the first to specifically examine HIV infections.

According to the new study, the largest raw number of HIV risk–related tweets came from the District of Columbia, Delaware, Louisiana and South Carolina. Those are some of the regions of the country that have been hardest hit by the HIV epidemic. DC, for example, has infection rates higher than many African countries.

“This study was designed to call for future research to understand the potential cost-effectiveness of this approach and to refine methods of using real-time social networking data for HIV and public health prevention and detection,” the researchers conclude.