Subject in Focus: Using social media listening to get ahead of the infodemic
The spread of misleading information about COVID-19 on social media, whether maliciously intended or not, can stop important public health guidance from reaching people and cost lives. This is a major challenge as, by the time specific posts of information have been identified and disproven, they have already been individually spread. That’s why Media Measurement is helping the WHO develop an understanding of the narratives as they emerge and develop in order to stop misinformation from gaining a foothold and allow for a more effective communications response.
The latest COVID-19 WHO Situation Report features our methodology and explains the importance of applying social listening to public health risk communications.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is now a ubiquitous topic in global online conversations and “covid” ranks as the second most used word in all public English-language social media posts published in the past 30 days. The term received 55 million public mentions and was only surpassed by the word “people”, with 57 million mentions.
The task of reaching global audiences with trustworthy and timely information is challenging in this tsunami of information – but more important than ever. The COVID-19 information ecosystem is sensitive to new “conversation inputs”, such as news stories, influential statements, or new research findings. These inputs have a measurable impact on online conversations and can affect people’s behaviour and emotions.
The WHO Infodemics management pillar has been monitoring global English- language conversations on COVID-19 to detect early signals of growing interest and public engagement with constantly emerging narratives around COVID-19. Regardless of whether these signals stem from trusted or unreliable sources they can be used to anticipate and intervene: what questions need answering or what myths need busting. In early April, the weekly monitoring detected a 98% rise in the number of global posts that engaged with the conversation on COVID-19 immunity.
The publication of research data on South Korean patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 following post-recovery tests generated an increase in the volume of mentions, questions, and speculation over a possible “reactivation” of the virus. The linguistic analysis that complements the weekly study unpacked the emotional response expressed by English-speaking users, revealing a 137% jump in social media posts using language that is representative of fear.
The analysis of 233 300 social media posts that mentioned immunity-related keywords in the context of COVID-19 between 23 March and 10 May 2020 suggested that the conversation had been rising by a daily average of 12% between 7 April to 17 April (Figure 1, highlighted in yellow). On 18 April, news media reported that WHO was “not sure whether the presence of antibodies in blood gives full protection against reinfection.” On this day, 31% of the public social media conversation on immunity on was driven by the World Health Organization’s own communication.
Following this statement, public concern over the possibility of COVID-19 re-infection – as inferred from the online conversation – decreased by 16% on average for the following six days. A second surge in conversation was then driven by WHO’s follow up statement on the clear “lack of evidence” of earned immunity after infection on 25 April. On this day this statement was issued, 74% of the social media conversation on immunity was driven by the WHO’s communication.
The data suggest that the introduction of a new input into the COVID-19 information ecosystem, on the topic of ‘re-infection / immunity’ has been influenced by proactive WHO infodemic intervention, filling the potential information gap.
After an average weekly rise of 51% of social media mentions of immunity over the two weeks that preceded WHO’s communication, the intervention helped to reverse the trend during the two weeks that followed (-30%). And even when immunity-related content did not specifically mention WHO, a decline in conversation could be detected: from +44% before the statement to -4% after the statement.
WHO’s timely communication in response to a topic of growing concern has helped to de-escalate speculation around immunity and reinfection on social media – even before the release of information that eventually claimed that the cases of re-infection detected in South Korea were false positives.
EPI-WIN has applied this social media listening methodology to public health and has detected invaluable insights, inspiring new ways of thinking and communicating risk during health emergencies.
The general approach to analysis was presented in the recent COVID-19 Situation Report number 100: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200429-sitrep-100- covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=bbfbf3d1_6
WHO Information network for Epidemics: www.who.int/epi-win”
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