Skip to main content
A Conversation with Assistant Professor Yonaira Rivera
Assistant Professor of Communication Yonaira Rivera tells SC&I about her research exploring ways social media can be used to improve community health, her community-based participatory research, and her plans for teaching this fall.
Assistant Professor of Communication Yonaira Rivera tells SC&I about her research exploring ways social media can be used to improve community health, her community-based participatory research, and her plans for teaching this fall.

Assistant Professor of Communication Yonaira Rivera joined SC&I this fall. She earned her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, and in a conversation with SC&I, Rivera explained her research goals, described her work as a founder of Puerto Rico Stands, a novel research method she developed for her doctoral dissertation that has already been adopted by another SC&I faculty member, and the courses she is teaching this year.

My research agenda overall explores how social media can be used to improve community health. I focus on the Latino community and underserved communities. I have a background in public health, so much of my practice informs my research.

I have two areas of overarching work. One of them, which I focused my dissertation work on, is exploring how engagement with health information and misinformation on social media can impact health decisions. The other line of work looks at how social media can be used to communicate with and mobilize communities before and after disaster.

I am inclined to use qualitatively-driven mixed methods approaches in my work, as well as community based participatory research. That impetus in using qualitative research is what guided the methodologies that I developed for my dissertation. If we don’t start exploring not just how people engage with things, but what happens that we maybe aren’t able to capture through research or these quantitative measures that we may or may not have access to, we are really excluding understanding what happens after.

In order to explore what happens after people engage with information online, we need to do so in ways that are beyond quantitative measures – especially since there may be back-end metrics that we do not have immediate access to as researchers exploring social media platforms. By embedding qualitative measures to our social media research, we may have a deeper understanding about what happens with that content beyond a click, both online and offline.

I decided to tackle my dissertation by developing a method I call the social media content and context (SoCo) Elicitation Method. I sat with my participants and they logged onto the study computer and their FB account. We scrolled though all of the cancer-related content that could have emerged on their profiles during the last year while recording the computer screen, and whenever engagement occurred - not necessarily because they clicked on it, but maybe they remembered watching the video - we sat down and talked about why. Not just why they watched the video or what the visual cues were, but how did they know the information was credible? Did they verify it? What was the process and what did they do with it? That in-depth conversation allowed for me to not only understand what they were doing with the content, but to take an objective look at the content they did engage with and access the scientific credibility. This is truly relevant for what we are seeing with COVID now, and especially with all of us being remote, thinking of different ways we can engage in that kind of research to really understand the role this information is having and how people make health decisions.

Some of the overarching findings of my work were that a lot of Latinos I spoke to didn’t click, like, comment, or share, but they did consume content and that influenced things they did, influenced their actions. Sometimes those actions were particularly harmful. I had one participant who watched a video from a Puerto Rican doctor -- she thought the person was a doctor and he wasn’t – who said mammograms cause cancer, so she called and cancelled her mammogram which was scheduled a few weeks later. I was also able to identify that there is a lot of inter-platform connectivity. For example, some people would circumvent sharing information on their Facebook profile by sharing it via WhatsApp or Facebook messenger.

People are finding other ways to share information with each other and amplify messages in their network. Beyond that I was also able to identify that with the Latino community (and a lot of other groups just listening to everyone else’s work), the role of culture/cultural identity/cultural norms, they really influence what people engage with, why, and how they interpret the credibility or the accuracy of all of that content. So, these elements of culture are used to really interpret those understandings. Additionally, in many cases, the sources of the information seem to enhance engagement or be more important than the actual content. Not all of the content people engaged with was evidence based, which becomes problematic when people use it to make decisions about their health and cancer prevention/screening.

In terms of where I am going now, I am working on publishing all of this work. I want to focus on standardizing a protocol for the methodologies I have developed because I am already starting to work with other colleagues. SC&I Assistant Professor of Communication Jeff Lane has already adopted some these methods for a study. I have some colleagues in Canada who are looking at COVID misinformation on different platforms as well and modifying the methodology to elicit data related to what people are doing with COVID misinformation. There are a lot of theories I think are important to expand on. Theories that look at heuristics and processing models, as well as those that discusses engagement on social media, are many times void of this cultural element, and it’s important to have the understanding of how that influences subsequent actions that influence health outcomes. There are also many applications for this research in future interventions, such as those focusing on health literacy, storytelling through narratives, and figuring out how we counteract misinformation by providing people with adequate resources.

In terms of future directions for this kind of work, there are a lot of intersections we can see now with COVID between politics and science, trust and mistrust and how people are absorbing all of the information they need to make better health decisions. When I focus on cancer, which is a lot of the work I’ve done in the past, I also think there is something interesting and important in expanding this methodology to see how survivors and caregivers are interacting with misinformation because the impacts of forgoing cancer treatment because they see a natural remedy online might be at a higher stake among those audiences of people who don’t have cancer.

The other line of work I’d like to highlight is my practice work. I am from Puerto Rico, so after Hurricane Maria, which happened during my dissertation, there was an immediate need to provide whatever assistance possible. So, a group of interdisciplinary professionals started a grassroots organization called Puerto Rico Stands. One of the things I want to embark on now at SC&I is moving that practice into more applied research. Social media played a huge role in how people got information during the storm, how organizations in the islands and away from the island were able to organize and mobilize relief efforts, and in the case of my group, fix facilitated communication between community leaders, which are instrumental in actually getting work done in the short and long term related to disaster relief. But now we are seeing political turmoil, the ramifications of COVID earthquakes, there are so many things that have been happening in Puerto Rico which highlight the concept of resiliency. There is a lot to explore there. I would like to take some of this practice-based work and develop it into theories, community engaged research, and exploring resiliency.

I am teaching COM 408 Health Messages and Campaign Design, which could not be timelier.

More information about the Communication Department at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information is on the website






Back to top