Research Article: Local chatter or international buzz? Language differences on posts about Zika research on Twitter and Facebook

Date Published: January 5, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Germana Barata, Kenneth Shores, Juan Pablo Alperin, Frank Emmert-Streib.


When the Zika virus outbreak became a global health emergency in early 2016, the scientific community responded with an increased output of Zika-related research. This upsurge in research naturally made its way into academic journals along with editorials, news, and reports. However, it is not yet known how or whether these scholarly communications were distributed to the populations most affected by Zika.

To understand how scientific outputs about Zika reached global and local audiences, we collected Tweets and Facebook posts that linked to Zika-related research in the first six months of 2016. Using a language detection algorithm, we found that up to 90% of Twitter and 76% of Facebook posts are in English. However, when none of the authors of the scholarly article are from English-speaking countries, posts on both social media are less likely to be in English. The effect is most pronounced on Facebook, where the likelihood of posting in English is between 11 and 16% lower when none of the authors are from English-speaking countries, as compared to when some or all are. Similarly, posts about papers written with a Brazilian author are 13% more likely to be in Portuguese on Facebook than when made on Twitter.

Our main conclusion is that scholarly communication on Twitter and Facebook of Zika-related research is dominated by English, despite Brazil being the epicenter of the Zika epidemic. This result suggests that scholarly findings about the Zika virus are unlikely to be distributed directly to relevant populations through these popular online mediums. Nevertheless, there are differences between platforms. Compared to Twitter, scholarly communication on Facebook is more likely to be in the language of an author’s country. The Zika outbreak provides a useful case-study for understanding how scientific outputs are communicated to relevant populations. Our results suggest that Facebook is a more effective channel than Twitter, if communication is desired to be in the native language of the affected country. Further research should explore how local media—such as governmental websites, newspapers and magazines, as well as television and radio—disseminate scholarly publication.

Partial Text

The Zika virus has been known to affect humans since 1952, but in February 2016 it was declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” by the World Health Organization [1]. The outbreak received international attention, in part because one of the most affected countries, Brazil, was about to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games that August. The impending mega-event and the influx of tourists it would attract from around the world turned the Zika outbreak from a national issue into a global health threat.

Even though social media users are not representative of the whole population [18], discussions on social media can reflect conversations about health issues and might provide important data for public health surveillance. In fact, social media has already been used to forecast Zika outbreaks, with some models predicting incidence rates up to a week ahead of official public releases [19].

Social media mentions of scientific journal articles related to Zika were based on a local copy of the database from Altmetric LLC, a company tracking online activity around scholarly research outputs with Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) since 2011. We identified Zika-related documents by searching for “Zika” in the title field and restricted Facebook and Twitter posts to the first six months of 2016 (January 1st, to June 30th, 2016), the period immediately before and after the outbreak, when information was most scarce). This period also corresponds to the peak of Zika cases [28] as well as the main internet users interest, according to Google Trends [29,30].

The majority of the research articles that were eventually shared on social media during the period studied were published in English. Of the 718 in the dataset, 648 were only available in English, and an additional 9 were in English as well as a second language. The next most popular language was Portuguese, with only 4 documents exclusively available in that language, and an additional 6 published in both Portuguese and either Spanish or English. This dominance of English is also reflected in the countries of the journals where these documents are published, which have 330 (46.0%) published in the US and 235 (32.7%) published in the UK. Only 25 (3.5%) of the articles that were shared on social media were published in Brazilian journals.

Our analysis of the language of posts related to research articles on Twitter and Facebook indicate that both Twitter and Facebook are dominated by conversations in English (Fig 3, Table 1, Table 2). This corresponds to both the dominance of English in scientific publishing as well as the dominance of users from English speaking countries on both on Facebook and Twitter [32,33]. At the same time, the higher percentage of non-English posts on Facebook overall indicates that people, including non-English speakers, perceive the two platforms differently, with Twitter as a place for discussions with a global public and Facebook a place where more targeted (potentially locally relevant) discussions take place.

The dominance of English as the language for research communication, both for research papers themselves, by authors from all countries, and on Twitter and Facebook is evident. This dominance should not be underestimated when seeking to communicate research to affected populations, or when seeking to do health surveillance on social media, especially when those affected populations are not in English-speaking countries. However, despite the dominance of English in the observed research communication, there are clear indications that there is interest in research about emerging outbreaks, like Zika, from non-English speakers.