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3 takeaways from local social media study on how Twitter can help solve the opioid crisis

Researchers with the Biocomplexity Institute talk about Twitter and opioids

ROANOKE – According to researchers at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech, 116 people die every day in the U.S. due to the opioid epidemic. An additional 1,000 people are hospitalized due to health issues related to opioids.

As lawmakers, police and community agencies work to prevent drug overdoses, researchers with the institute and the Virginia Department of Health have found that social media can help solve the problem. 

Researchers there recently completed a study on Twitter posts and how tweets can not only provide necessary information about opioids in the community back to the VDH, but also spread important information back throughout the community.

That research was presented by doctoral student James Schlitt in front of health workers from across the state Wednesday in Roanoke.

"At the very least we want to keep people safe, keep people alive. Let them know when bad things are moving through town,” Schlitt said.

Pulling data from more than 5,400 opioid-related Twitter posts made by users in Virginia and Georgia, the Virginia Tech team searched for common factors among the most highly shared content. While this research is still in its early stages, three clear takeaways have emerged from the study so far.

  • For public service organizations, pose the opioid epidemic as a problem that community members can help solve. “Law Enforcement Agencies sharing positive messages that invited the community to take part in some fun, anti-drug-themed activity received 83 times more views than law enforcement posts that focused on the negative legal consequences of opioid use, such as reports on recent arrests,” said Schlitt, a graduate research associate in the Biocomplexity Institute’s Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory and doctoral candidate in the genetics, bioinformatics, and computational biology program. “In general, the data seem to suggest that people like to see their local government organizations taking concrete steps toward decreasing drug use.”
  • Use news sources to emphasize emerging threats. “Posts from local news outlets received seven times more views than other sources when they highlighted the health risks posed by opioid abuse in their area,” said Schlitt. “Based on our current data, if public health officials want to get the word out about tainted street drugs that are putting citizens at an elevated risk for a fatal overdose, their message might get more attention if it’s relayed through a trusted local news source.”
  • Start your informational campaigns at midday and keep sharing. “When a tweet is first posted, it can easily reach audiences across the country, but after about five hours the average post’s reach effectively falls to zero,” said Schlitt. “For urgent messages related to the local opioid situation, we recommend public health agencies make their posts when the highest number of active Twitter users are online—around noon—and re-share in the early evening.”

These preliminary findings build upon more of a decade of Biocomplexity Institute research developing tools to help policymakers identify populations that face the highest risk of infection during disease outbreaks like flu or Ebola. With more information on drug prescriptions, sales, and usage being made publicly available, researchers hope to apply these same predictive modeling techniques to the U.S. opioid epidemic.

“Opioid use is such a widespread problem, it’s been a challenge trying to narrow down the factors that put communities at risk of addiction,” said Van Truong, a graduate researcher based in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “These first steps make us hopeful that we’re finding meaningful patterns in the data— with the stakes so high, any advantage gained is worth fighting for.”

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