A rapid method for assessing social versus independent interest in health issues: A case study of 'bird flu' and 'swine flu'
Effective communication strategies regarding health issues are affected by the way in which the public obtain their knowledge, particularly whether people become interested independently, or through their social networks. This is often investigated through localized ethnography or surveys. In rapidly-evolving situations, however, there may also be a need for swift, case-specific assessment as a guide to initial strategy development. With this aim, we analyze real-time online data, provided by the new 'Google Trends' tool, concerning Internet search frequency for health-related issues. To these data we apply a simple model to characterise the effective degree of social transmission versus decisions made individually. As case examples, we explore two rapidly-evolved issues, namely the world-wide interest in avian influenza, or 'bird flu', in 2005, and in H1N1, or 'swine flu', from late April to early May 2009. The 2005 'bird flu' scare demonstrated almost pure imitation for two months initially, followed by a spike of independent decision that corresponded with an announcement by US president George Bush. For 'swine flu' in 2009, imitation was the more prevalent throughout. Overall, the results show how interest in health scares can spread primarily by social means, and that engaging more independent decisions at the population scale may require a dramatic announcement to push a populace over the 'tipping point'.
Volume (Year): 71 (2010)
Issue (Month): 3 (August)
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