Risk Communication Expert Offers Public Health Guide to COVID-19 Retweets

University at Albany, State University of New York

Newswise — ALBANY, N.Y. (Sept. 25, 2020) – Over the last six months, health agencies across the globe have played a  critical role in informing the public about COVID-19 through actions such as offering guidance on prevention, motivating compliance with health directives and combatting misinformation.

Jeannette Sutton has spent that same time period observing their messaging on social media.

Sutton, an associate professor and the new director of graduate studies at the University at Albany's College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC), co-published new research in PLOS ONE that analyzed 150,000 tweets about COVID-19 from official accounts of about 700 state and local agencies between February and April 2020.

The goal was to determine which messaging tactics led to the greatest engagement (measured by the number of retweets). Understanding the messaging features that led to shares could help guide future COVID-19 communication strategies, according to Sutton. 

“We’ve been doing research on Twitter messaging for eight years or so,” Sutton said. “Many health agencies, especially at the local level, do not have a high reach to begin with. So, giving them insight into what tactics help draw attention to their posts is extremely helpful.”

“Our reports are not usually completed this quickly. But, we recognized early on into the pandemic that there was an urgency for this type of analysis right now,” she added.

What Leads to Retweets?

To identify effective messaging tactics, Sutton, along with a team of collaborators, first manually sifted through a random sample of 9,000 tweets, looking closely at both message content and other features used in tweets. From there, they used automated methods to code and analyze the remainder of tweets.

Their analysis revealed that tweets characterizing the impacts of the virus, its spread, and actions that individuals can take to protect themselves, were all features that most strongly influenced message retransmission; no single topic was most successful.

Tweets that included videos, and to a smaller extent, images and hashtags, were more likely to be retweeted. The date the message was sent made a difference too. For example, messages published after the national emergency declaration on March 13 were passed on 44 percent more frequently than those sent before the declaration. Tactics such as using exclamation points or presenting content in the form of a question did not appear to promote retweets – a notable difference from other crisis situations in the past.

The researchers also identified a list of COVID-19-related keywords and phrases that were commonly used during the three-month period.

“We have identified consistent themes across different hazards that are effective,” Sutton said. “At the same time, some of the usual common messaging tactics – like using exclamation points or asking a question – were found to be counterproductive in the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis. This makes sense given that the context of a pandemic differs from a fast-moving threat, like a wildfire or flood.”

Sutton’s co-investigator is Carter T. Butts at the University of California Irvine. The two are now building on their first study to examine tweets from May to August. They caution that the impact of messaging tactics could change as the pandemic continues to unfold.

“Our research will help agencies reach their target audience during the later stages of this pandemic, or the next public health emergency,” Sutton said. 

The project is funded through an ongoing National Science Foundation (NSF) RAPID grant to examine COVID-19 risk communication on social media.

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