Special Issue “Social Media and Public Health: Opportunities and Challenges”

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

We are organising a Special Issue on the use of social media within public health in the journal International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. This journal is scientific and peer-reviewed, and publishes articles and communications in the interdisciplinary area of environmental health sciences and public health. For detailed information on the journal, we refer you to https://www.mdpi.com/journal/ijerph.

We are living in an information age, with more user-generated data being generated today than ever before with the widespread popularity of social media. Social media platforms provide the ability to extract intelligence for public health purposes. This can range from using social media to track the spread of diseases to the opinion mining of public views and opinions.

Social media has the potential to provide rapid insights into unfolding public health emergencies such as infectious disease outbreaks. They can also be drawn upon for rapid, survey-based insights into various health topics. Social media has also begun to be utilised by medical professionals for the purposes of sharing scholarly works, international collaboration, and engaging in policy debates.

A benefit of social media platforms for gaining insight into health is that they have the ability to capture unfiltered public opinion in large volumes, avoiding potential biases introduced by surveys or interviews. Social media platforms can also be utilised to pilot surveys, for instance, though the use of Twitter polls.

Social media data have also been drawn upon in medical emergencies and crisis situations as a public health surveillance tool. A number of software and online tools also exist that have been developed specifically to aide public health research utilising social media data. In recent years, ethical issues of retrieving and analysing data have also arisen.

Henceforth, we invite researchers who are working in the broad areas of social media and health to submit their research on these issues for publication in this Special Issue.

This Special Issue is open to any submission related to social media and public health, and the keywords provide some examples of various possibilities.

Dr. Wasim Ahmed
Dr. Josep Vidal-Alaball
Guest Editors

Manuscript Submission Information

Manuscripts should be submitted online at www.mdpi.com by registering and logging in to this website. Once you are registered, click here to go to the submission form. Manuscripts can be submitted until the deadline. All papers will be peer-reviewed. Accepted papers will be published continuously in the journal (as soon as accepted) and will be listed together on the special issue website. Research articles, review articles as well as short communications are invited. For planned papers, a title and short abstract (about 100 words) can be sent to the Editorial Office for announcement on this website.

Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a single-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health is an international peer-reviewed open access semimonthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1800 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI’s English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.


  • Social media
  • Public health
  • Disease surveillance
  • Health promotion
  • E-health
  • Telehealth
  • Ethics
  • Health informatics

Published Papers

This special issue is now open for submission.

Very pleased to see my 2019 edition of “Using Twitter as a data source: an overview of social media research tools” go live on the @LSEImpactBlog !

Be sure to check it out here: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2019/06/18/using-twitter-as-a-data-source-an-overview-of-social-media-research-tools-2019/

Twitter and other social media platforms represent a large and largely untapped resource for social data and evidence. In this post, Wasim Ahmed updates his recurring series on the Impact Blog, to bring you the latest developments in digital methods and methodologies for researching Twitter and other social media platforms.


Social Media and Journalism: Methods and Tools

This post is based on my 2018 journal article for Online Information Review titled ‘Social media analytics: analysis and visualisation of news diffusion using NodeXL’ .

In this paper I wrote that

“One well-known case of news emerging through Twitter before traditional media outlet was the death of Osama Bin Laden which was leaked on the platform (Hu et al., 2012). Moreover, Hu et al (2012) noted that one of the reasons for Twitter users to become convinced of this news was because the users who were posting the news appeared to be journalists and politicians i.e., reputable individuals. Twitter also has potential for citizen journalism because most smartphones are now able to capture an image on their device and have it uploaded to Twitter in under 45 seconds (Murthy, 2011). An iconic example of this is a passenger on the Midtown Ferry whom photographed a downed U.S Airways jet floating in the Hudson river in 2009 prior to the mainstream media even arriving to the scene  (Murthy, 2011). These cases highlight the power of Twitter in the rapid cascading and diffusing information during emerging news events. ” (Ahmed, 2018 p3)

In the passage above I noted the role of Twitter as a tool for breaking news stories and citizen journalism. It is also important to note that Twitter is also used by politicians and journalists with particular affiliations to try and shape public discourse.

In the paper I argued that better tools and methods are required to be able to critically analyse, visualize and understand the swarm of content being generated by social media platforms such as Twitter. I noted that:

“However, it can be argued that Twitter has been poorly mapped and understood for its network properties by news media. This is because although it is possible to visualise the structure of a conversation on Twitter and to identify prominent users and the overall structure of the conversation in order to garner the situational awareness of an emerging news story this aspect of Twitter is seldom reported on by news media.” (Ahmed, 2018 p.9)

The tool that I outlined which can be used by journalists to map and visualise social media is known as NodeXL. In the paper I noted that:

NodeXL allows end-users to generate network visualisations from a range of data sources and one such source is Twitter. In the case of Twitter NodeXL can additionally generate a number of metrics associated with the graphs such as:

  • The most frequently shared URLs
  • Domains
  • Hashtags
  • Words
  • Word Pairs
  • Replied-To
  • Mentioned Users
  • Most frequent tweeters

(Ahmed, 2018 p.5)

I then went on to provide a table for how NodeXL could be used by journalists.

Table 1

General Goals for Newsrooms How to Achieve Goal

Determine dominant external media narratives shared on social media during an evolving news event.


Examine most frequently shared URLs, domains, and hashtags in NodeXL.
Establish different discussions that are taking place based on an emergent new development.  

Examine the different groups that emerge by examining the different groups and to interpret the most frequently occurring words, word pairs in order to understand the discussions that are taking place.


Discover main information diffusers during a developing news story and/or a topic of interest.  

To identify users influential using the metric of betweenness centrality and/or to identify broadcast hubs within network visualisations which show prominent users.


Learn about general key players during an emerging news event.  

To examine metrics within Twitter such as replied-to, mentioned users, and most frequent tweeters



Ascertain users who are concerned with an evolving news event.


To locate users who have been tweeting the most.

Table recreated from Ahmed (2018 p.8)

In the paper I provide the example of #MacronLeaks, however, below I have provided a network visualization of the keyword ‘Theresa May’.

Figure 1 – Network visualization of Theresa May

Theresa May_2019-01-27_23-26-06.xlsx

The above network graph resembles a number of different shapes and we can interpret them drawing on guidance from Smith et al (2014) which outlines different types of network structures.

Figure 2 – Different Types of Network Structure

6 types of network structure

We can then work through the full analytics (found here) and begin to complete Table 1 taking on board the guidance provided. For instance, to understand some of the main narratives we can take a look at most shared URLs, domains, and hashtags in NodeXL. This will then provide insight into some of the key narratives related to Theresa May on Twitter.


Ahmed, W., & Lugovic, S. (2018). Social Media Analytics: Analysis and Visualisation of News Diffusion using NodeXL. Online Information Review.

Hu, M., Liu, S., Wei, F., Wu, Y., Stasko, J., Ma, K.-L., 2012. Breaking News on Twitter, in: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI ’12. ACM, New York, NY, USA, pp. 2751–2754. https://doi.org/10.1145/2207676.2208672

Murthy, D., 2011. Twitter: Microphone for the masses? Media Cult. Soc. 33, 779–789.

Smith, M.A., Rainie, L., Shneiderman, B. and Himelboim, I. (2014), “Mapping Twitter topic networks:
from polarized crowds to community clusters”, Pew Research Center, Vol. 20, pp. 1-56.

Social media and the social sciences: methods and tools for academic research

Social media as a research tool has gained in popularity in recent years. Those new to the field may wish to know about the key methodologies and tools that can be used for the analysis of data. This post will provide a round-up of popular methods and tools for the analysis of social media data.

Although there will be a number of ways to build custom scripts for the analysis of data; it remains that pre-existing tools remain popular for social science scholars as it removes the need for development skills. Twitter remains the most utilised platform and will be the focus of this post.

New event for 2019! Social Media & Digital Humanities: Methods/Approaches For Social Scientists

As a wrote in my 2015 LSE Impact blog post:

  • Sentiment analysis works well with social media data, as posts may be  consistent in length
  • Time series analysis is normally used when examining posts overtime to see when a peak of social media posts may occur
  • Network analysis is used to visualize the connections between people and to better understand the structure of the conversation.
  • Machine learning methods may work well with social media data because of the volume of tweets
  • Qualitative analysis methods  (such as thematic and content analysis) are rare for social media research, however, they can often offer up more depth than quantitative methods.

Read more here 

In terms of popular tools for the analysis of social media data a list of popular tools is populated below:

An overview of tools for 2019

Tool OS Download and/or access from Platforms*
Audiense Web-based https://buy.audiense.com/trial/new Twitter
Chorus (free) Windows (Desktop advisable) http://chorusanalytics.co.uk/chorus/request_download.php Twitter
COSMOS Project (free) Windows
http://socialdatalab.net/software Twitter
Echosec Web-based https://www.echosec.net Instagram
AIS Shipping
Sina Weibo
Followthehashtag Web-based http://www.followthehashtag.com Twitter
Mozdeh Windows (Desktop advisable) http://mozdeh.wlv.ac.uk/installation.html Twitter
Netlytic Web-based https://netlytic.org Twitter
RSS Feed
NodeXL Windows http://nodexl.codeplex.com Twitter
NVivo Windows and MAC http://www.qsrinternational.com/product Twitter
Ability to import
SocioViz Web-based http://socioviz.net Twitter
Trendsmap Web-based https://www.trendsmap.com Twitter
Twitonomy Web-based http://www.twitonomy.com Twitter
Twitter Arching Google Spreadsheet (TAGS) Web-based https://tags.hawksey.info Twitter
Visibrain Web-based http://www.visibrain.com Twitter
Webometric Analyst Windows http://lexiurl.wlv.ac.uk Twitter (with image extraction capabilities)
Other web resources

The tools above can be used in a manner to conduct academic research that many may believe that is not possible!

Published research that may be of interest:

Downing, J & Ahmed, W (2019). #MacronLeaks as a “warning shot” for European democracies: challenges to election blackouts presented by social media and election meddling during the 2017 French presidential election.

Vidal-Alaball J., Fernandez-Luque L., Marin Gomez FX., Ahmed W (2019). A New Tool for Public Health Opinion: Using Twitter Polls for Insight into Telemedicine. JMIR Formative Research. ( 2018 Journal Stats from Web of Science)

Ahmed, W., Bath, P.A, Sbaffi, L., Demartini, G. (2019). Novel insights into views towards H1N1 during the 2009 Pandemic: a thematic analysis of Twitter data. Health Information and Libraries Journal (2018 impact factor ).

Ahmed, W., & Lugovic, S. (2019). Social Media Analytics: Analysis and Visualisation of News Diffusion using NodeXL. Online Information Review. (2018 Impact Factor: 1.928).

Zhang, Z., & Ahmed, W (2018). A Comparison of Information Sharing Behaviours across 379 Health Conditions on Twitter. International Journal of Public Health. (2018 impact factor 2.373) 

Ahmed, W. (2018) Public Health Implications of #ShoutYourAbortion. Public Health Journal.  (2018 Impact Factor 1.696). 

Ahmed, W. (2018) Using Social Media Data for Research: An Overview of Tools. Journal of Communication Technology.

Samuel, G., Ahmed, W., Kara, H., Jessop, C., Quinton, S., & Sanger, S. (2018). Is It Time to Re-Evaluate the Ethics Governance of Social Media Research?. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 1556264618793773.

Ahmed, W., Bath, P.A., & Demartini G (2017) Using Twitter as a data source: An overview of ethical challenges.  Advances in Research Ethics and Integrity (Eds). Emerald Books.

Social Media and Digital Humanities: Methods and Approaches For Social Scientists and Digital Marketing Professionals



Be sure to check out this new online course on social media research methods and tools:

Social Media & Digital Humanities: Methods/Approaches For Social Scientists


Upon completion of this course, participants will:

  • Understand basics of social media research and the many methodologies to analyse social network data
  • Understand the theoretical aspects of social media research and gain knolwedge of key methodologies to analyse social media research.
  • Be able to transform communication data (e.g. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc.) into network data.
  • Be familiar with the use of standard tools and software for the analysis of social media data
  • Be able to devise and conduct social media research for industry and/or academia.


New publication: A comparison of information sharing behaviours across 379 health conditions on Twitter

A comparison of information sharing behaviours across 379 health conditions on Twitter in International Journal of Public Health



To compare information sharing of over 379 health conditions on Twitter to uncover trends and patterns of online user activities.


We collected 1.5 million tweets generated by over 450,000 Twitter users for 379 health conditions, each of which was quantified using a multivariate model describing engagement, user and content aspects of the data and compared using correlation and network analysis to discover patterns of user activities in these online communities.


We found a significant imbalance in terms of the size of communities interested in different health conditions, regardless of the seriousness of these conditions. Improving the informativeness of tweets by using, for example, URLs, multimedia and mentions can be important factors in promoting health conditions on Twitter. Using hashtags on the contrary is less effective. Social network analysis revealed similar structures of the discussion found across different health conditions.


Our study found variance in activity between different health communities on Twitter, and our results are likely to be of interest to public health authorities and officials interested in the potential of Twitter to raise awareness of public health.


The full paper can be accessed here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00038-018-1192-5

Emoji Cities: what the world is saying

I recently provided an expert comment statement on the Emoji Cities tool and I thought that it may be of interest to readers. Check it out below!

Every city is different, but how different? From Rio to Shanghai and London to LA, Emoji Cities uses Twitter activity to examine what the world is talking about. Find out the top trends, the most popular hashtags, who’s in the news, and – of course – the top emojis for every major city. Discover what the world is saying – and feeling.

Check out Emoji Cities here: https://www.smartdestinations.com/emoji-cities/


Presented paper and won award at 9th International Social Media and Society Conference

These days I am working as an Assistant Professor at Northumbria University, recently, I presented a paper based on my PhD research, recently completed at the Information School based at the University of Sheffield, at the 9th International Social Media and Society Conference which had an acceptance rate of 47%.

The paper titled Moral Panic through the Lens of Twitter: An Analysis of Infectious Disease Outbreaks can be accessed here. The paper was also summarised in a blog post by Professor Axel Bruns, President of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR).

most active twitter user

At the awards ceremony, I received the award of ‘most engaged Twitter user’ and won a series of prizes (pictured above). The hashtag for the conference contained over 400 unique users, and generated over 2,500 unique tweets and became a trending topic in Copenhagen (where the conference was taking place).