What Masks Can Teach Us About Online Behavior and Vaccines
No single image will better represent 2020 than a mask. It’s the material representation of our collective experience of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a lightning rod of controversy and subject of politicization in what was a tense election year. It may come as no surprise then that masks, or more generally personal protective equipment (PPE), have been the most discussed COVID-19 topic online since the start of the pandemic. Out of the 13 million online mentions of COVID-19 AlphaVu collected in the fall alone, 23% of those conversations (or about 1 in 5), mentioned PPE (that’s compared to 4% mentioning social distancing and 1% mentioning contact tracing). With this trove of information, there’s a lot we can learn about why people engage with certain topics over others and how we can expect the public to participate in conversations about the new dominate COVID-19 topic, vaccines.
- First and foremost, people are concerned about what directly impacts their everyday lives. This somewhat intuitive point should always guide our analysis and understanding of what motivates people to engage online. Whether people felt they should or need to wear a mask as they navigated everyday public spaces was an underlying question that affected how people expressed their opinions online. Pulling from an example in the public infrastructure realm, most engagement with transportation topics online stem from everyday questions like, how will I get to work today, how much will it cost me, and how long will it take?
- We live in a visually oriented culture. People will have a quicker more visceral response to what they can see over other types of information that may take longer to process. This applies to the real world but is especially intensified online. Masks, being the most visual representation of a public health threat that is virtually invisible, have been a medium through which many have channeled their thoughts, experiences, and concerns about the pandemic. We observe this in public infrastructure conversations too. Engagement with infrastructure projects increases, for example, when people are presented with maps of proposed plans, which allow them to easily see how they will be impacted.
- Media and politics drive the narrative and there is little indication this will change anytime soon. The COVID Mentions by Topic visual above best represents this point when taking a look at what drove spikes in COVID mentions. The largest spike occurred on a day that most epitomized the melding of media, politics, and the pandemic, when it was made public President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19.
On Monday, November 9th Pfizer and BioNTech announced its vaccine candidate was found to be more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in the participants of its study. As seen in the graph above, vaccine-related conversations have spiked and Vaccine often ranks as the most discussed topic online since that day. A few initial thoughts to consider:
- Like masks, the public will likely focus on adoption and enforcement, the latter leading to the most intense online debate.
- Not everyone will participate and those who are hesitant to adopt this prevention measure will be louder and more vocal online, like what we’ve observed among PPE conversations. We should be prepared to address this by continuing to monitor the spread of vaccine-related misinformation and reaching the most vulnerable members of our population with fact-based information about vaccinations.
- Trust and empathy will help drive adoption. Despite people’s innate tendency to focus on what impacts themselves, there’s reassuring support in the data people can and will be motivated to act based on what will benefit the larger communities they’re a part of.
Public opinion polls from earlier in the fall demonstrate how, despite the noise generated about masks online, trust in and usage of masks did increase over time in all demographic and political groups. Although inoculating the population with a COVID-19 vaccine will present a novel set of challenges, it’s clear we must continue to focus on maintaining and even building upon this public goodwill and ensure all Americans, especially the most at-risk, have exposure to fact-based information about the tools needed to end the pandemic together.
Post and visuals by Zach Hernandez, Director of Analytics