Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., analyzed 1,000 social media posts to explore how the public gains an understanding of a complex and highly contagious virus like Zika. (Getty Images)

Going viral: VCU study analyzes #Zika and #ZikaVirus posts on Instagram

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Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D.
Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D.

During the Zika outbreak in 2016, Instagram was filled with posts about the disease that is spread by mosquitoes and can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, potentially leading to serious birth defects.

A forthcoming study by a Virginia Commonwealth University public relations professor analyzed 1,000 of those social media posts to explore how the public gains an understanding of a complex and highly contagious virus like Zika, particularly on Instagram, a platform popular among women of reproductive age.

A version of the study, “Using the Health Belief Model to Analyze #Zika on Instagram: Implications for Public Health Communications,” will be published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The study was conducted by Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public relations in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, as part of her dissertation at the Department of Health Behavior and Policy in VCU’s School of Medicine.

Guidry’s study analyzed Instagram posts with the hashtags #Zika and #ZikaVirus in August 2016. The goal, she said, is to help public health officials better communicate with the public about serious health messages via social media.

How did you go about studying this topic?

I did a quantitative content analysis of 1,000 Zika-related posts on Instagram. [That means I] basically analyzed 1,000 Instagram posts to see what was discussed, especially related to Zika prevention.

I used a popular health behavior theory, the Health Belief Model, for this analysis. It is a theoretical framework to explain the uptake of preventive behaviors via perceived susceptibility, severity, benefits, barriers, self-efficacy, and cues to action and has been used successfully to develop health education messages and campaigns.

How would you describe the paper's overarching findings?

Overall, the Zika-focused posts in this Instagram sample reflected a high level of perceived threat and a low level of expressed self-efficacy. In other words, there were plentiful mentions of the perceived threat of Zika and one’s perceived susceptibility to Zika, but few posts that expressed confidence in how to protect oneself from Zika infection. And we know that in order for people to take certain preventative actions, you need to both be aware of the threat but also have confidence that you can address the threat.

Public health organizations should consider increasing their activity regarding Zika prevention on Instagram. For example, they could emphasize the benefits and relative ease of restricting travel to high-risk areas, using repellent and wearing protective clothing — and that the benefits of such actions outweigh the barriers.

What led you to want to study this topic?

I was approaching the time when I was supposed to choose my dissertation topic when the Zika outbreak first started. I have always had an interest in infectious diseases and vaccines and the main part of my dissertation focused on what messaging should look like for the future Zika vaccine once it becomes available, primarily when I saw the absolutely devastating effects of Zika when contracted during pregnancy. Basically all my research includes social and/or mobile technology and media, because I believe it can be such a powerful medium in both health communication and public health. So in this case I decided to focus on Instagram messages — how people discussed Zika on Instagram and how we might best communicate with them once a Zika vaccine becomes available.

Are there bigger implications for social media and infectious diseases that this research might have?

Everything happens so fast on social media, and I think often as researchers we address things later than when the public starts discussing them — for good reasons, because responsible research takes time. But we do need to realize that social media posts can and often do spread virally — just like infectious disease — and that we need to get better at developing trustworthy messaging that can be published quickly, and still have it be informed by what we find in research.

Social media communications research is an exciting field, especially when dealing with health and risk communication. It’s always- and fast-changing. We have heard a lot of concerning reports on misinformation on social media, and that is a real issue — anti-vaccine information, for example, seems to be present on every social media platform, and that is a real concern. However, I also believe that social media can be used for much good. Messages that need to get through to people — whether they are related to infectious diseases, or suicide prevention, or healthy eating, or sexual violence — can get there through social media. We just need to learn more about how to adapt in this ever-changing environment.