COVID-19 and Twitter: What was communicated? What was not?

When did you realise that your life had changed completely because of SARS-CoV-2? Was it in March 2020? Or perhaps April? We found that for most people it depends a lot on where they were based. As part of the TRESCA research activities, we watched closely what happened in eight European countries, namely in Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain, and The Netherlands, how the lives of people were impacted by COVID-19.

Looking at trends on internet searches between January and May 2020, we can see that only a bunch of people knew about COVID-19 in February 2020. Most of us only became aware of it in March, when the number of cases started growing exponentially in countries such as Italy or Spain. In Italy for instance, media interest in coronavirus was extremely high around 24 February 2020. Similar levels of attention were reached in Spain, France and Germany around 9 March 2020.

Online searches for COVID-19 rose quickly

Since March 2020,  news outlets, web searches, and YouTube searches displayed a steady increase of interest in coronavirus related topics. Data charts and curves showed that interest in the topic started in early February. Interest temporarily faded away at the end of the month, but only to be followed by a sudden and very sharp increase in interest from March onwards – a digital phenomenon known as “becoming viral”. From this point onwards, news on and information about the pandemic overshadowed all other topics and dominated public attention in all of the eight EU countries TRESCA uses as case studies.

Figure 1: Google Trends analysis for the term “coronavirus”, which included all variations (“covid”, “covid-19”, etc.), for Google web searches in Italy, Poland, Spain and The Netherlands between 1 January 2020 and 1 May 2020.
Figure 2: Google Trends analysis for the term “coronavirus”, which included all variations (“covid”, “covid-19”, etc.) for Google web searches in Austria, Germany, France, and Hungary between 1 January 2020 and 1 May 2020.
Figure 3: Evolution of COVID-19 cases in Italy, Spain, Germany and France between 24 February 2020 and 10 June 2020 (source: Open Stats Coronavirus).

As already shown in the Google Trends analyses above, terms such as ‘coronavirus’, ‘covid_19’, ‘COVID’, ‘Corona’, started receiving attention in February 2020 and became hot topics from March on until May 2020, when the pandemic was considered to be mostly under control in the eight countries TRESCA analysed. In order to monitor Twitter users’ interest over time in the countries analysed (minus Hungary, for which the WOEID was not available and which shows a limited Twitter volume), the CSIC team collected the 10 most relevant trending topics hourly between 18 March and 19 May 2020. As a result, 70,000 data points were collected in Italy, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Poland. Word clouds are used to demonstrate the usage frequency of certain hashtags during this period. The bigger the size of the word(s) indicates the more frequent appearance of the hashtag between mid March and mid May 2020. 

The word clouds constructed for each of the analysed countries show that COVID related hashtags were the most relevant topic discussed on Twitter during this period. The Twitter posts were mostly related to what was discussed and was going on in TV shows and entertainment programs. Controversies around responses to the COVID-19 pandemic also prompted an increased interest in science communication programs. The rest of this blog post will take a closer look at the interesting findings from each of the analysed countries.

Italy

Looking at the most frequent hashtags in Italy between mid-March and mid-May, we found Twitter users used the hashtags of popular debate or talk show television programs (live propaganda and carte blanche), popular entertainment games and challenges programs (ciaodarwin, Beijing express), sentimental and love affairs programs and, finally, the most famous missing persons investigation program in Italy (“Chi l’ha visto?”: who has seen it). Scientific information is noted and conveyed via Twitter, although this is out of the ordinary and most likely a result of the exceptional nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, touching upon so many facets of the average Italian’s lives that it spread and appeared in generalist and entertainment tv programs.

Figure 4: Word cloud for Twitter trending topics in Italy (18 March to 19 May 2020).

Spain

In Spain, the trending hashtags largely skewed on the side of marketing campaigns (e.g. #EnCasitaConChollometro or #EnCasaConAcerYPcComponentes) and of the use of the hashtag #Happy followed by the day of the week (e.g. #FelizSabado; 25,080 tweets on 28/03/2020), which is a common practice for Spanish twitter users. To deep-dive into trending topics, TRESCA researchers excluded these hashtags and constructed the below word cloud. Besides ‘COVID’ and ‘Madrid’, which was the city in Spain with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, entertainment shows such as ‘#MasterChef’ and shows talking about the pandemic received the most attention. Some examples are, ‘#MillenioLive’ is a TV show on YouTube conducted by Iker Jiménez, who talks about topics related to science and technology from a counter-culture perspective. As well as ‘#Rosavientos’, which is an entertainment radio show with podcasts produced by AtresMedia and presented by  Bruno Cardeñosa y Silvia Casasola, where a lot of attention was paid to the science around COVID-19 and the management of the pandemic. Moreover, ‘#PabloMotos’ refers to Pablo Motos Burgos, who is the presenter of satirical TV show El Hormiguero. Pablo Motos Burgos was vocal and critical about the government’s management of the pandemic. Lastly, that hashtag “Abascal” refers to Santiago Abascal Conde, the leader of the right-wing party Vox.  

Figure 5: Word cloud for Twitter trending topics in Spain (18 March to 19 May 2020) – revised  version after removing the hashtag happy weekday.

France

The analysis of trending topics in the French Twitter-sphere reveals some difference from the Italian and Spanish Twitter-sphere. In France, #confinement and #deconfinement measures, in addition coronavirus (#covid), were hot topics. Entertainment, documentaries, news magazines (#ZoneInterdite), and TV shows were also part of people’s daily Twitter conversations (#4mariagespour1lunedemiel; #TopChef; #PekinExpress; #septahuit; #KohLanta and celebrities such as #Moussa, Claude, or Greg). Popular local and international figures were also highly discussed, as can be seen in the French word could which features #EduoardPhilippe, whos is the Prime Minister of France, the journalist #PatrickCohen, and the President of the USA #Trump. The hashtag #Trump in fact appears in many of the Twitter-sphere of many of the countries TRESCA analysed. 

Figure 6: Word cloud for Twitter trending topics in France (18 March to 19 May 2020).

The Netherlands

Moving onto the Twitter discussion in The Netherlands, like Italy and Spain, entertainment were the main discussion points between mid-March and mid-May 2020. As the word cloud demonstrates, TV shows focusing on football (#veronicainside) and dating TV shows (#boerzoektvrouw and #firstdates) were highly discussed. Another popular TV show (#beaublijftbinnen), which covers issues that people struggle with during the COVID-19 pandemic was also highly discussed. COVID-19 related hashtags, which were related to the corona debate (#coronadebat), the use of sanitary masks (#mondkapjes), “stay home” recommendations (#blijfthuis), and social distancing in the new “1.5 meter-society” (#anderhalvemetersamenleving) can also be observed in the word cloud – although they are of medium to small size, which means the frequency of usage is lower than the entertainment topics. Another notable hashtag is #persconferentie (press conference), which refers to the prime minister’s conference when he spoke of the lockdown and other corona measures (#coronamaatregelen).

Figure 7: Word cloud for Twitter trending topics in The Netherlands (18 March to 19 May 2020).

Germany

Similar to the previous analysed countries, in the German Twitter-sphere entertainment topics were very popular during the researched period. TV shows, especially reality shows and talk shows (#dasperfektedinner, #hartaberfair, #firstdates, #letsdance, #promisunterpalmen, #tatort, #annewill, #lanz, #themaskedsinger, #shoppingqueen) dominated the discussions of most German Twitter users. Topics relating to the COVID-19 pandemic are also highly visible in the word cloud, including coronavirus (#covid), and similar to France, hashtags referring to the easing of lockdown measures (#Lockerungen) is also visible. Hashtags for the staying home recommendation (#wirbleibenzuhause) and the mandatory use of sanitary masks (#maskenpflicht) can also be seen in the word cloud. This shows there are also some similarities in the German and Dutch Twitter-sphere.  

Figure 8: Word cloud for Twitter trending topics in Germany (18 March to 19 May 2020).

Austria

Unsurprisingly now, the main Austrian Twitter conversations during the time period analysed also focused heavily on TV programs. Slightly different from the previously discussed countries, Austrians appear to focus on news programs, as clearly visible in the word cloud are Zeit im Bild (#zib2) and #imZentrum, which are popular news programs broadcasted by ORF that discuss emerging topics. #puls24 is another show discussing current events, and it is run by a private TV group (ProSieben). The discussion around COVID-19 (#covid) has been lively in Austria, especially with the controversy around the spreading of the disease in the town of Ischgl (#Ischgl), which is a ski resort village in western Austria’s Paznaun Valley. Austrians were also interested in discussing how their life was affected by the lockdown. Keywords such as #homeoffice can be clearly seen in the word cloud and #Matura refers to the debate on final year exams for 12th level students.

Figure 9: Word cloud for Twitter trending topics in Austria (18 March to 19 May 2020).

Poland

Entertainment shows also appear to be the most discussed topics on Polish Twitter-sphere. Similar to German and Dutch Twitter-sphere, Sport TV shows (#hejtpark), dating TV shows (#hejtpark), and talk shows about politics and current affairs (#wtylewizji, #woronicza, #minela8) are the widely discussed topics by Polish Twitter users. The discussion of politics in Polish Twitter-sphere is not new though. It is common to find references to political agreements (Porozumienia) and political institutions such as the lower house of the Polish bicameral parliament (#Sejm) and the Court of Justice of the European Union, or CJEU (#TSUE) being discussed among Polish Twitter users. Mentionings of political figures are also common. Twitter users talked of Jacek Sasin (#Sasin), who became Deputy Prime Minister in June 2019 and the Minister for State Assets in November 2019, and of Jarosław Adam Gowin (#Gowin), who is a Polish conservative politician and an editor. Even former Polish Pope John Paul II (Jana Pawła II) was frequently mentioned. Besides coronavirus (#covid), the word cloud showed discussion about the lockdown, mainly of activities affected by confinement such as the celebration of secondary school exams (#matura2020).

Figure 10: Word cloude for Twitter trending topics in Poland (18 March to 19 May 2020).

Examining the Twitter data between mid-March and mid-May 2020 clearly showed many similarities and some differences between the Twitter-sphere of the countries TRESCA analysed. COVID-19 was clearly a hot and much discussed topic in all seven of the examined countries, to the point that it was not just discussed in and by news and governmental channels but covered by more generalistic and entertainment channels as well. With this in mind, and tying in how fast fake news and misinformation can be spread via social media and communication tools such as WhatsApp (as discussed in our first blog post – COVID-19: in times of global pandemic, be aware of the right communication feeds), TRESCA will next look at the relevant factors that shapes the public’s perception of science communication.

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