The society’s reaction to risks of Covid-19 and mask wearing behaviour was best expressed on microblogging site Twitter.
A new study, by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, analysed the content of more than 7,000 tweets about mask-wearing from 6,300 users from January to July 2020 — a time when understanding about the pandemic-risk was still evolving and when only nonpharmaceutical interventions like mask wearing were available to mitigate risk.
The findings, published in the journal PLOS One, showed that the Twitteratti documented their experiences by including hyperlinks, hashtags, mentions often at political figures, videos, images and sharing these with their networks in real time, both amplifying and attenuating Covid-19 risk perceptions.
Although a smaller proportion of mask tweets debated Covid-19 transmission routes and mask effectiveness, the largest proportion of mask tweets discussed the mask-related behaviour of others.
Further, the users ascribed many meanings to mask wearing and at many levels, from relational aspects (e.g., behaviour of others in the workplace) to government guidelines and policies.
These findings suggest that public health messaging focusing only on increasing severity and threat will fall short of the desired response, the researchers said.
Instead, using an approach that emphasises social or group identity, or an approach that shifts mask messaging away from individual responsibility to emphasise workplace policy may have better success of acceptance given the mixed messaging occurring at the individual level, they noted.
“The study illustrates the important role social media plays in contextualising real-time reactions to public health crises. It also helps explain the ways in which social media functions to amplify and attenuate risk,” said Suellen Hopfer, Assistant Professor of health, society, and behaviour at the UCI Programme in Public Health.
Hopfer added that the findings also showed how risk perceptions were dynamic over time.
For example, early phases of the pandemic were dominated by discussions about who is at risk and sense making of risk severity while later phases were dominated by behaviour of others and politicisation of mask wearing.