How did Twitter respond to updated UK alcohol guidelines?

In January 2016, the UK’s four Chief Medical Officers released a public consultation regarding updated guidelines for low-risk alcohol consumption. Online search behaviour suggests that the announcement of new alcohol guidelines generated awareness and interest. But what was the nature of the public response?

Our study, published in BMJ Open, examined responses to the updated guidelines using comments made on Twitter. We aimed to identify the source, sentiment, and themes present in over 3,000 tweets made in the week following the announcement of the new guidelines (January 8th -14th, 2016).

We found that most comments (71%) came from what appeared to be members of the public, with others coming from health-related organisations, media outlets, the alcohol industry, and public figures. Although most tweets expressed no specific sentiment towards the new guidelines, more tweets conveyed negative sentiment (27%) than positive sentiment (7%).

We identified eleven themes in the comments, which we grouped into three categories: broadly supportive of the updated guidelines, broadly unsupportive, and neutral. Overall, more tweets were unsupportive (49%) than supportive (44%).

Unsupportive themes included encouraging other to drink (the most common theme among tweets from members of the public), disagreement with the guidelines, and complaints about ‘nanny state’ intrusion. Notably, whilst unsupportive tweets commonly expressed negative sentiment towards the guidelines, supportive tweets generally expressed no clear sentiment.

As with much research using publicly available data from Twitter, there are questions regarding how representative these comments are of the population. That said, Twitter comments offer the opportunity to assess immediate responses to health policy announcements, and to identify attitudes that may not be expressed in official responses.

The themes present in unsupportive tweets may be useful to consider when tailoring future policy messages regarding alcohol use and other health behaviours. In the paper we also entertain the possibility of health professional using social media to engage with individuals regarding misunderstanding of health messages.

Reactions on Twitter to updated alcohol guidelines in the UK: a content analysis. Stautz K, Bignardi G, Hollands GJ, Marteau TM.

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