A weird bump pops up. It's probably nothing, but, what if it's not? You don't want to visit a doctor because visiting a doctor for what’s probably nothing is inconvenient and expensive. So we google our symptoms, and do our best to filter out the more terrifying results.
It's easy to think these late night google searches are private and forgotten as quickly as possible. But it turns out that the government is watching. Not in a creepy “we’ve got our eyes on you” way, but in the way that Google search trends and geotagged tweets are already publicly available – and public health researchers are studying them.
So in a sense, your hypochondriac google searches were just you doing your civic duty.
In particular, two studies run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found links between patterns of syphilis outbreaks and the online activity of people in those areas. One experiment found that the Google history for 25 keywords, such as “STD” and “Find Sex,” were linked to the changes in reported cases of syphilis in that same area in the following weeks. A second experiment found the same pattern for geotagged tweets about syphilis (yes, apparently people are tweeting about syphilis) or unsafe sexual behaviors.
Collecting already-accessible data from Google and Twitter is much easier than developing the models that are used for tracking disease outbreaks and making public health recommendations – which performed just as well as these new methods. Specifically, the researchers tested both google and twitter against the CDCs existing models and the actual syphilis rates for 2012-2014. However, the researchers didn’t look at nearly long enough of a time period to actually be able to determine how the CDC allocates resources and funds.
This also doesn’t mean that a rise in tweets about unprotected sex in a given county will cause a rise in syphilis rates or vice versa. The researchers have teased out an interesting link between people’s online behavior and their sexual health, but not necessarily a predictive tool that would reliably track or help prevent future outbreaks.
In the meantime, keep on googling and tweeting about your weird bumps and bruises. You really never know if your one retweet and three likes could be contributing to the next great medical breakthrough.