Harnessing social media networks to share information about stem cell research and treatments

Demand has driven the continued growth of unproven stem cell treatments offered in private clinics around the world, despite regulations and restrictions on stem cell use in many countries. Social media offers a tremendous opportunity to use social networks as a way to inform the public about stem cell research and the risks involved with unproven treatments. Recently, a public information campaign using Twitter was designed to explore the potential use of online networks as a way to share evidence-based information and encourage people to engage in discussion about stem cell-related topics.

What background and points are discussed?

Dr McNutt and Professor Zarzeczny’s research highlights several advantages of using social media as a platform for PICs, including potentially large audiences and the opportunity for people to engage with each other and to add content. Notably, social media has the ability to promote information to users from sources they trust, which is particularly important in the context of unproven and unapproved therapies, because research suggests some individuals interested in pursuing these treatments do not trust doctors or established medical research organisations. The authors chose Twitter as their social media platform because it has been shown to play a role in social learning and to potentially influence health behaviours. Its structure also lends itself to having influential users (individuals or organizations) with large networks of followers, which is useful for broadly distributing information. The authors used an approach referred to as “network governance” and identified 100 influential Twitter users and invited them to participate in their stem cell treatment-focused PIC. The influential users were asked to send tweets over a two-month period referencing a patient booklet titled “What you need to know about stem cell therapies” (written by Professor Timothy Caulfield and Dr. Zubin Master) along with a hashtag for monitoring user activity. The results of this exploratory study show that three out of the 100 influential users contacted actively participated, sending 42 tweets over the two months of the PIC. Six other users also sent out a single tweet. The initial tweets from the participating organisations alone had the potential to reach a total of 12,129 Twitter users, as measured by their numbers of followers on Twitter. Importantly, social media allows viewers to engage with information and discussions at different levels, such as passive viewing, promoting posts, and allowing users to be ‘co-creators’ by adding their own comments and content. The authors determined that their PIC stimulated 169 users to retweet posted messages and 89 users to mark that they liked different tweets. In addition, the authors documented eleven users who engaged with the PIC at a higher level by adding their own content to their tweets about the campaign.