Many of us are frittering away time on Facebook or Twitter as we hunker down at home during the pandemic. But there’s a potential upside to all this social media engagement: It lets public health officials know how people feel about Covid-19 restrictions and can be used to encourage compliance.

Australian researchers found that social media analytics – the gathering of marketing and user data -- not only can capture how people feel about pandemic measures such as masks and social distancing, but can help the public understand why restrictions are needed.

Because social media use is ubiquitous across the globe, governments can use the information gathered to guide public pandemic policy, said study author Tan Yigitcanlar, PhD, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane. His research was published in the journal Health Information Science and Systems .

“Along with government agencies using social media as interactive tools, we also suggest they conduct social media analytics to capture and understand public perceptions, such as in a pandemic situation,” Dr. Yigitcanlar told Medical Daily . “We argue that social media analytics can help assist policy- and decision-makers to . . . identify the key requirements of the community to cope with the pandemic situation.”

“This is the best way to reach people in the 21 st century,” said co-author Nayomi Kankanamge, a doctoral student, in a statement from QUT. “In this digital age, local community perceptions and suggestions about social distancing policies, self-isolation, quarantines, movement control, travel restrictions, lockdowns and other changes are well reflected through social media messages.”

Reversing public dissatisfaction

More than 4 billion people – more than half the global population – are now using social media, reports indicate. This use grew dramatically between July and September 2020 alone, with an average of 2 million more users each day.

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

They focused on Australia – which has achieved notable success controlling Covid-19 cases – for several reasons: Nearly 80% of citizens use social media, and the health sector increasingly mines social media analytics.

The study showed that “the Australian public was not happy at the early stage of the pandemic curve, as they seemed to believe the Australian government was not responding appropriately,” Dr. Yigitcanlar said in the QUT release. “As such, people were in panic mode.”

The words “toilet/paper” were common in Australian tweets during that time, as consumers hoarded items such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer and food. “This indicated how Australian people act when the government does not provide confidence,” he said.

But the Australian government helped reverse this trend after adding travel and other restrictions to help combat the virus, Dr. Yigitcanlar noted. “Popular words like ‘testing’ and ‘shutdown’ among positively classified tweets showed people were generally happy about the actions taken by the government to combat the virus dispersion in Australia,” he added.

Cutting through disinformation

Some research has examined how social media disinformation, or “fake news,” might affect people’s behavior, potentially leading to poor decision making. A June 2020 study by the global consulting firm FTI detailed the cause and effect between misinformation spread about the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the reduction in the number of vaccines given to children in England and Wales from 2012 to 2018. “ Our data suggests that on average, a 1% decrease in vaccination coverage is associated with a 2% increase in the measles incidence rate.” The authors wrote the “analysis suggests that over half of this fall may be due to misinformation.”

With Twitter and Facebook working strenuously in recent months to control disinformation spread on their sites, the Yigitcanlar research underscores how governments can also use social media to educate citizens about public health measures, said Xiaolei Huang, PhD. He’s an incoming assistant professor of computer science at University of Memphis in Tennessee. He wasn’t involved in the study.

Social media also offers leaders the opportunity to learn attitudes and perceptions of people spread across their nations, regardless of how rural or remote, said Dr. Huang, whose own research has modeled and analyzed public health issues via social media. People are more likely to air their true feelings on these platforms than on formal polls or surveys, he added.

“When government navigates social media channels and introduces measures, it definitely helps people follow the rules,” he told Medical Daily . “Social media is a great way to spread opinions and help government hear what people think, as well as a way for government to make accurate information available to their audience.”

Sean Marsala contributed to the reporting for this article.

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