Communicating Public Health: Conversations about the COVID-19 pandemic - Report 1

The first of four Communicating Public Health reports, published by Future Care Capital, shares insight from Ipsos's analysis of social media activity during the pandemic.

The author(s)

  • Sylvie Hobden Public Affairs
  • Steven Ginnis Public Affairs
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In this research for Future Care Capital (FCC), Ipsos harnesses the power of social media data to provide insight into the UK's lived experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first report in the Communicating Public Health series provides an overview of the methodology used throughout the research series, and a discussion of the key considerations for judging the utility of social media data. It also discusses what, based on social media activity, constitute the key announcements related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The subsequent reports in the series, to by published by FCC in the coming weeks, will be focused on public health messaging performance, conversations among the health and social care workforce and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the physical and mental health of social media users.

Key findings

  • Throughout the pandemic, the policy areas that generated the highest volumes of discussion on social media were those that affected the vast majority, if not all, of the general public. These included lockdown guidelines, testing and vaccines and the Government’s recovery strategy.
  • Conversations about policy areas that affected subsets of the population - including quarantine guidelines, shielding guidelines and social care – were less evident on social media. Together, these findings imply that social media is a poor tool for communicating with those who are most likely to be impacted by such policy announcements.
  • The data suggests that there is, at the very least, a symbiotic relationship between social media content posted by mainstream media outlets and that posted by members of the general public. It seems likely that a high level of mainstream media activity has the potential to propel conversation about key issues at the expense of others which receive less attention.
  • Two further characteristics were also evident within the formal announcements led by government and public health bodies. Firstly, that public health messages have to compete with, and can be derailed by, unplanned events. Secondly, that future public health messages will need to overcome a falling rate of discussion about coronavirus on social media if the announcements are to be widely heard.

Volume of COVID-19 related social media posts over time

Volume of COVID-19 related social media posts over time - Ipsos

Commenting on the findings, Ipsos Research Director Steven Ginnis said:

Social media data captures more than just a window into public opinion; this project has delivered a real-time log of the UK’s lived experience of the pandemic. The analysis of social media data has provided key lessons from how public opinion, media coverage, public health announcements and events constantly intertwined during the pandemic. While the research has its limitations because social media users are not representative of the UK population, understanding these dynamics will be a crucial tool for better health outcomes.

Technical note

The primary methodology used to conduct this research was social media analysis. The analysis was based on an initial dataset of 3,692,129 social media posts from between 01 February and 30 June 2020. The dataset included posts from social networks and forums together with comments on key press articles.

The author(s)

  • Sylvie Hobden Public Affairs
  • Steven Ginnis Public Affairs

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