COVID lessons emerge from AI tracking of Reddit talk trends

Applying machine learning with natural language processing to Reddit forums, researchers at Penn Medicine’s Center for Digital Health have found the nation’s healthcare leadership recently missed some prime opportunities for promoting public health.

And some of these chances rose and fell off fairly early on in the COVID-19 crisis.

For example, chatter about ways to safely spend time outdoors peaked in mid-March—weeks before the CDC and, with it, the national media, prioritized that concern.

The researchers, led by Daniel Stokes, MS, used their digital toolkit to track the forums from March 3 to 31.

Another of their key findings was that comparisons to the flu were widely embraced.

“Early recognition of this reality could have led to more specific information dissemination campaigns and earlier public acknowledgement of disease severity,” the authors write in a concise research report posted in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Missed chances aside, the authors found much to be commended in their real-time, AI-aided approach for monitoring social media for “more dynamically understanding and responding to needs in public health emergencies.”

Among the other subtopics the team found peaking and subsiding in mentions as the days went by during the project:

  • “Hand washing” became less prevalent throughout March.
  • “Travel” peaked early and dropped throughout the month.
  • “Personal finances” increased as the month wore on.
  • “Sense of pandemic severity” evolved over the month, with decreasing flu-COVID comparisons and increasing interest in numbers of cases and deaths.

In a Penn Medicine news release, Stokes points out that it wasn’t until April that the CDC recommended wearing masks for the general public.

“So it is interesting to see that masks were being discussed a great deal prior to that recommendation,” he says. “Perhaps it was a sign that many people were ready for these guidelines earlier.”

Stokes adds that winning the public’s buy-in is essential to ensuring the success of public health efforts.

“Having a source like Reddit that is directly tied to people’s thoughts,” he says, “could prove invaluable in crafting plans that meet people where they are.”