Austin, Lucinda L. (2012). Government’s use of social media to frame health information: A review of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social media practices. In S.C. Duhe (Ed.), New Media and Public Relations (2nd ed., pp. 209-217). New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.
Exploring the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its use of social media, this study examined how health information is framed in CDC’s social media, characteristics of CDC’s use of social media, and how CDC builds relationships with publics via social media. Through a purposive sample of 622 posts over a 6-month period from among select CDC Facebook and Twitter pages, this study employed a qualitative, grounded theory approach to analysis. Findings revealed key differences between the use of Twitter and Facebook and themes in CDC’s framing of health information. Despite the potential of these media for interactivity, dialogue, and tailored communication, CDC largely uses the sites to disseminate general information.
A purposive sample of 622 posts from CDC’s Facebook and Twitter pages (including over six different Twitter sites) over a 6-month period (November 2009 to April 2010) were analyzed qualitatively.
1) Information in CDC’s social media was framed as timely, important, and science- and evidence-based. Information focused on prevention, individual responsibility, safety, and to a lesser extent, community collaboration.
2) CDC used statistical evidence to a greater extent and narrative evidence to a lesser extent; CDC’s Facebook page included more statistical evidence than the Twitter pages.
3) Cross-posting and re-posting of information was common between and within Twitter and Facebook sites.
4) Twitter and Facebook sites were similar in terms of content, although the Twitter pages targeted more specific audiences and linked to more outside information. Individuals posting responses to publics’ posts on Facebook were most often individuals affiliated with CDC, not CDC as the organization.
5) While participation was encouraged in the form of sharing messages with others, active dialogue was not encouraged as often on the social media sites. Increasing the focus of messages beyond individual responsibility, extending more to community efforts, may aid in CDC’s focus on prevention.
Implications for Practice
Government’s use of social media and its social media policies have the potential to influence use of social media for public health initiatives on a larger scale. This study fills a gap in this emerging area of research by showing how health organizations use social media to communicate with publics, compared to other framing studies exploring traditional media frames. Additionally, as these platforms targeted very general audiences, using these platforms more interactively and to better tailor health messages to diverse audiences can better enhance the unique benefits that these social media platforms can provide.
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