QUT researchers say social media analytics can capture the attitudes and perceptions of the public during a pandemic.

Researchers have analysed 35,969 geotagged tweets originating from Australia between January 1 and May 4, 2020 for the new paper - How can social media analytics assist authorities in pandemic-related policy decisions? Insights from Australian states and territories. 

“From the Plague of Athens in 430 BC, to the Black Death of the 1300s, through to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 and the Swine Flu outbreak in 2009, pandemics are not new. However, increased globalisation since the 1980s has accelerated their spread, as we have seen this year with COVID-19,” says Associate Professor Tan Yigitcanlar from QUT’s School of Built Environment.

“What started late last year in Wuhan, China was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March. Global cases are heading towards 50 million and there have been more than 1.2 million deaths so far.

“The pandemic has led to many countries introducing lockdowns and limited citizen movements. These restrictions in turn have triggered an increased use of digital technologies and platforms by the public.

“Our aim was to generate insights into how social media analytics can assist authorities in pandemic-related policy decisions.

“We chose Australia as our case study because it has been highly successful in flattening the curve and social media analytics are increasingly used by the health sector here.

“Australia is also an advanced nation with a diverse culture that adapts the technological trends of the world, with the largest being social media. In 2018, 79 per cent of Australians used social media.”

The study concluded that social media analytics are a valuable tool in understanding the thoughts and actions of the public during a pandemic.

“Our analysis has shown that the Australian public was not happy at the early stage of the pandemic curve as they seemed to believe that the Australian government was not responding appropriately,” Prof Yigitcanlar said.

“As such, people were in a panic mode, and tried to prepare to face the pandemic at their capacity. The words, ‘toilet/paper’ were very common in Twitter in all states/territories during this stage.”

This was because consumer panic buying patterns took place in Australia, where people tried to stock toilet paper, hand sanitisers, food, and other commodities. It indicated how Australian people act when the government does not provide confidence.

“From February 2020 onwards, the Australian government started to add travel restrictions to combat COVID-19 which built trust,” Professor Yigitcanlar said.

“Popular words like ‘testing’ and ‘shutdown’ among positively classified tweets showed people were generally happy about the actions taken by the government to combat the virus dispersion in Australia.

“For instance, the tweets circulated in Queensland emphasised the significance of expanding the number of testing per day at the early stage to stop spreading the virus rapidly. Most of the tweets discussed the importance of wearing masks.”

The researchers also found that crowdsourced social media data could guide interventions and decisions of authorities during a pandemic.

“We also found that effective use of government social media channels, such as Twitter or Facebook, can help enhance public health education and awareness concerning social distancing restrictions and other measures or restrictions such as the latest lockdown in the UK and much of Europe. This is the best way to reach people in the 21st century,” QUT PhD student Nayomi Kankanamge said.