Background: Sugar and soft drink taxes have been implemented in over 40 locations globally. This includes the UK's Soft Drink Industry Levy (SDIL) which was implemented on 6th April 2018 to reduce sugar consumption and improve health. Tax implementation is highly debated on social media. This study aimed to explore the stakeholder networks involved in the debate surrounding the SDIL on Twitter.
Methods: Social network analysis (SNA) of tweets posted between August 2017 and May 2019 containing the search term 'sugar tax', (or those posted in reply to, or retweeting posts containing the term) was conducted. Network graphs were developed using NodeXL to investigate network structures, identify clusters and to assess the path distances between actors. A 20% subsample of tweets were randomly selected and analysed for content, sentiment and themes.
Results: Across the sample period 5366 tweets were posted by 1883 users. SNA revealed the sugar tax debate on Twitter is disperse, with contributors from 238 different groups including dental health organisations, government bodies and the soft drink industry. Analysis of the tweet subsample revealed users were sharing information from a variety of sources and users. The majority of tweets (52%, n=115) were negative in sentiment, whilst only 17% (n=37) were positive. Influential actors were identified based on position within the network, the number of ties to other actors, and the number of tweets posted. Public health professionals and industry groups were influential as they were strategically located and had numerous weak ties to other actors.
Conclusion: Unlike theoretical descriptions of networks of divisive debates which have a polarised structure, SNA here revealed that the #Sugartax debate on Twitter had a dispersed network. This may be due to the greater number of actors involved and range of information sources being shared. The diverse debates taking place were evidenced by the variety of themes identified. Influential actors were characterised by having numerous weak ties to other actors and being prolific posters of tweets. Advocates could apply the findings to improve their understanding of policy debates on Twitter and improve their attempts to shape debates for example through developing numerous weak ties.
12 Sep 2019 - 13 Sep 2019