Many of us spend our time on Facebook or Twitter while settling down at home during the pandemic. There is one potential benefit to this social media engagement, however: it informs public health officials how people feel about the limitations of Covid-19 and can be used to promote compliance.

Australian researchers found that social media analytics – the collection of marketing and user data – can not only capture how people think about pandemic measures like masks and social distancing, but can also help the public understand why restrictions are needed.

With social media usage ubiquitous around the world, governments can use the information gathered as a guide to pandemic public policy, said study author Tan Yigitcanlar, PhD, associate professor of urban research and planning at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane. His research was published in the journal Health Information Science and Systems.

“In addition to government agencies using social media as an interactive tool, we also recommend doing social media analytics to capture and understand public perceptions, such as in a pandemic situation,” said Dr. Yigitcanlar to Medical Daily. “We argue that social media analytics can help policy makers and decision makers with this. . . Identify the most important requirements of the community to deal with the pandemic situation. “

“This is the best way to reach people in the 21st century,” said co-author Nayomi Kankanamge, a PhD student, in a statement from QUT. “In this digital age, the local community’s perceptions and suggestions about guidelines for social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, movement control, travel restrictions, bans and other changes are reflected in the news on social media.”

Reversal of public discontent

According to reports, more than 4 billion people – more than half the world’s population – now use social media. This usage increased dramatically between July and September 2020 alone, with an average of 2 million more users per day.

Dr. Yigitcanlar and his team collected nearly 97,000 geotagged tweets from Australia between January and May 2020. They analyzed about 36,000 of these after eliminating “noise” such as automated and irrelevant messages and web links.

They focused on Australia, which has had remarkable success in controlling Covid-19 cases, for several reasons: Nearly 80% of citizens use social media, and the health sector is increasingly promoting social media analysis.

The study showed that “the Australian public was not happy in the early stages of the pandemic curve as they appeared to believe that the Australian government was not reacting appropriately,” said Dr. Yigitcanlar in the QUT press release. “As such, people were panicking.”

The words “toilet / paper” were common in Australian tweets during this period as consumers hoarded items such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer and groceries. “This showed how Australians act when the government fails to inspire confidence,” he said.

However, the Australian government helped reverse this trend after adding travel and other restrictions to fight the virus, noted Dr. Yigitcanlar firmly. “Popular words like ‘test’ and ‘shut down’ in positively classified tweets indicated that people in general were happy with the government’s efforts to combat the spread of the virus in Australia,” he added.

Cut disinformation

Some research has looked at how disinformation about social media or “false news” affects people’s behavior and can potentially lead to bad decisions. A June 2020 study by global consultancy FTI detailed the cause and effect between the spread of misinformation about the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the reduction in the number of vaccines for children in England and Wales from 2012 to 2018 . “Our data suggest that an average 1% decrease in vaccination rates is associated with a 2% increase in measles incidence rates. “The authors wrote,” The analysis suggests that more than half of this decline could be due to misinformation. “

As Twitter and Facebook have worked hard in recent months to control the spread of disinformation on their websites, the Yigitcanlar study underscores how governments can also use social media to educate citizens about public health policies, said Dr. Xiaolei Huang. He is an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. He was not involved in the study.

Social media also offers leaders the opportunity to learn attitudes and perceptions of people in their countries, regardless of how rural or remote they are, said Dr. Huang, whose own research has modeled and analyzed public health problems through social media. People are more likely to express their true feelings on these platforms than in formal polls or polls, he added.

“When the government is navigating social media channels and taking action, it definitely helps people keep the rules,” he told Medical Daily. “Social media is a great way to share opinions and help the government hear what people think, as well as a way for the government to provide accurate information to their audiences.”

Sean Marsala contributed to coverage for this article.

Maureen Salamon writes on health and medicine for websites, magazines, and hospitals such as Medscape, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine, and others.

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