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Assessment of public attention, risk perception, emotional and behavioural responses to the COVID-19 outbreak: social media surveillance in China

By Zhiyuan Hou, Fanxing Du, Hao Jiang, Xinyu Zhou, Leesa Lin

Posted 17 Mar 2020
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.03.14.20035956

BackgroundUsing social media surveillance data, this study aimed to assess public attention, risk perception, emotion, and behavioural response to the COVID-19 outbreak in real time. MethodsWe collected data from most popular social medias: Sina Weibo, Baidu search engine, and Ali e-commerce marketplace, from 1 Dec 2019 to 15 Feb 2020. Weibo post counts and Baidu searches were used to generate indices assessing public attention. Public intention and actual adoption of recommended protection measures or panic buying triggered by rumours and misinformation were measured by Baidu and Ali indices. Qualitative Weibo posts were analysed by the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count text analysis programme to assess public emotion responses to epidemiological events, governments announcements, and control measures. FindingsWe identified two missed windows of opportunity for early epidemic control of the COVID-19 outbreak, one in Dec 2019 and the other between 31 Dec and 19 Jan, when public attention was very low despite the emerging outbreak. Delayed release of information ignited negative public emotions. The public responded quickly to government announcements and adopted recommended behaviours according to issued guidelines. We found rumours and misinformation regarding remedies and cures led to panic buying during the outbreak, and timely clarification of rumours effectively reduced irrational behaviour. InterpretationSocial media surveillance can enable timely assessments of public reaction to risk communication and epidemic control measures, and the immediate clarification of rumours. This should be fully incorporated into epidemic preparedness and response systems. FundingNational Natural Science Foundation of China.

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