Using software to analyze social media comments and sentiments, researchers have found that 51 percent of tweets by private users of Twitter accounts contained stigma, when making reference to about Alzheimer's disease and the people who deal with this condition.
The new software developed at Oregon State University (OSU) may be applicable to a range of other social science research questions, the researchers said, and already shows that many people may not adequately appreciate the power of social media to greatly transcend the type of interpersonal, face-to-face communication humans are most accustomed to.
"As a society it's like we're learning a new skill of text communication, and we don't fully understand or reflect on its power to affect so many people in ways that we may not have intended," said Nels Oscar, an OSU graduate student in the College of Engineering. "Social media is instant, in some cases can reach millions of people at once, and can even instigate behaviors. We often don't even know who might eventually read it and how it will affect them."
When it comes to Alzheimer's disease, thoughtless or demeaning comments on a broad level via social media can take an already-serious problem and make it worse.
The topic studied by Oscar and his colleagues, who published a paper in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, is of growing importance.
A global tripling of individuals with some form of dementia has been projected in coming decades, from 43 million now to 131 million by 2050.
In the research, the software was designed to recognize and interpret the use of various keywords associated with Alzheimer's disease, such as dementia, memory loss or senile.
The system was improved by comparing results to the same comment evaluated by human researchers, and ultimately achieved an accuracy of about 90 percent in determining whether a comment was meant to be informative, a joke, a metaphor, ridicule, or fit other dimensions.
Used to analyze 33,000 tweets that made some reference to Alzheimer's disease, the system indicated that people concerned about these issues might be more conscious of their own comments on social media, and also more willing to engage with others who are using language that is insensitive or potentially hurtful.
However, "it was shocking to me how many people stigmatized Alzheimer's disease and reinforced stereotypes that can further alienate people with this condition," said Karen Hooker, holder of the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Endowed Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies, in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences. "This can create what we call 'excess disability,' when people with a stigmatized condition perform worse just because of the negative expectations that damaging stereotypes bring."
"This type of stigma can make it less likely that people will admit they have problems or seek treatment, when often they can still live satisfying, meaningful and productive lives," Hooker was quoted as saying in a news release. "Our attitudes, the things we say affect others. And social media is now amplifying our ability to reach others with thoughtless or hurtful comments."
The researchers noted a 2012 report that negative attitudes about Alzheimer's disease and dementia can result in shame, guilt, hopelessness and social exclusion among stigmatized individuals, leading to delay in diagnosis, inability to cope, and decreased quality of life.
A comment a person might never make in a face-to-face conversation, said Oscar, lead author on the study, is often transmitted via social media to dozens, hundreds or ultimately thousands of people that were not really intended.
Some constraints that might reduce the impact, like clearly making a joke or using sarcasm in a personal conversation, can often get lost in translation to the printed word.