When it comes to studying why people believe the things they do, there aren’t many options beyond simply asking them. But with the rise of social media, people are increasingly sharing their beliefs in public, and doing so in a way that is compatible with the tools of big data.
This kind of understanding also increasingly vital to public health: knowing why some communities are more hesitant than others to get COVID vaccines could lead to more tailored, effective messages.
Sharath Chandra Guntuku, a research assistant professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and a senior fellow at Penn’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, recently led a study that used Twitter to help identify those differences.
The American Communities Project (ACP) categorized U.S. counties into 15 distinct community types. Using this typology, Guntuku and team analyzed a random sample of more than 78 million vaccine-related tweets posted between December 1, 2020, and February 28, 2021. They found significant differences in vaccine topics in eight of these communities, as shown in Figure 1.
The topics reveal different community concerns (at least among those who tweet). For example, counties in the African American South posted about issues of trust, hesitancy, and history, while Hispanic Centers posted their concerns around food and water. Evangelical Hubs posted about Operation Warp Speed and thanking God. Urban Suburbs posted about equitable distribution in communities, Exurbs posted about the 2020 election, and Rural Middle America posted about nursing homes and long term senior resident facilities. College towns talked about in-clinic vaccinations near universities, while Graying America posted about personal choice and freedom.