Social media’s importance during a pandemic

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As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe this year, social media took on a whole new level of importance.

Governments, schools and health organisations were suddenly using their social media channels more than ever to convey vital information.

A Monash University study analysed close to three million tweets across six countries during the first four months of the pandemic.

The interdisciplinary study was conducted by researchers from Monash’s Faculty of Information Technology, together with a frontline medical professional. The researchers analysed Twitter-based discussions of public health measures, such as proper hand hygiene, social distancing, travel bans, and working from home, in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Key findings of the study included:

  • New Zealand displayed the greatest acceptance of public health measures, while the US showed the lowest. This is in spite of these countries having the most and least restrictive public health measures respectively.
  • Australian and Irish users perceived the issuing of frivolous fines based on ambiguous roles to be a revenue raising activity. This eroded the public’s trust in the regimes and police.
  • Racially charged language and use of anti-China hashtags to signal tweets about COVID-19 were almost exclusive to the US.
  • Australia tweeted about panic buying more than any other country, especially about toilet paper and limits on alcohol purchases.
  • The UK were most concerned with at-risk individuals such as immunocompromised and the elderly, while New Zealand was most concerned with vulnerable community groups such as Maori and those without stable accommodation.
  • Australians made repeated reference to the decisions made over non-essential service closures, specifically about the restrictions on mourners at funerals and the allowance of hair salons to remain open.
  • Ireland’s delay in shutting pubs and clubs for St Patrick’s Day frustrated users who were juggling working from home with homeschooling children.
  • Anxiety and sadness were expressed in UK tweets.

For private health organisations here in Australia, their social media platforms became more than just a place to give out information. For many, it was a place to allay community fears and receive praise for their hard work.

Bundaberg’s Friendly Society Private Hospital used their Facebook page to display artworks from local children.

The Bundaberg Church sent in “thank you drawings” to the staff, which found pride of place in the hospital’s main foyer, as well as online.

A hospital spokeswoman said they found their social media followers “really appreciated the lengths we went to, to keep them safe”.

“We had a lot of changes here, for example, we asked our volunteers – mostly retirees – to stay home, our café removed the seating, social distancing had to be maintained and our visitor numbers had to be managed,” the spokeswoman said.

“With all those changes, the messages were positive and filled with gratitude.”

For Ramsay Health Care, the pandemic and the responses it received on social media prompted the organisation to launch a campaign called “Behind the Mask”.

The video campaign, aimed at thanking team members for their hard work and commitment, was shown on all their social media platforms, as well as on TV and in newspapers online, helping to reinforce the human side to a global crisis.

Monash researcher Dr Samantha Brunt, who worked as an Emergency Department doctor at Perth Royal Hospital at the beginning of the pandemic, said looking at Twitter data could offer timely feedback.

“These insights can support government decision-making, implementation and communication strategies, as well as encourage further discussion about future global health events,” she said.

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