The continuing expansion of social media and big data presents positive opportunities for healthcare research, public health surveillance, and dissemination of health information. However, caution must be used as online data can be harvested and sold without permission from the public. This includes social manipulation, such as the targeting of voters during elections, or pre-determining the likelihood of an individual engaging in high-risk behaviours with associated social, employment, or insurance consequences.
The first independent COVID-19 contact tracing application (app) in the UK was unsuccessful. Subsequently, the UK Government has sought to develop apps with the help of large technology firms. These companies generate profit through surveillance capitalism - the mining of human digital activity for profit. Although large technology companies may have the resources available to assist with public health endeavours, their primary obligation to the shareholder should not be overlooked.
This narrative review explores recent positive advances in the use of data derived from social media. It also highlights concerns about the potential to abuse this technology for outcomes that are not in the best interests of our patients or general population.