New research shows how media coverage can cause people to search for information on an epidemic, regardless of the actual threat level.

The findings could be important to public health officials trying to refine their crisis communication techniques.

During an epidemic caused by a newly emerging infection - such as the current coronavirus pandemic - media outlets play an important role in informing the public about risks and ways people can protect themselves.

A computational analysis by international researchers has found that during the 2016 Zika outbreak, news exposure appears to have had a far bigger impact than local disease risk on the number of times people visited Zika-related Wikipedia pages in the US.

They analysed data on the total number of times people in US cities and states accessed Wikipedia pages related to Zika in 2016, and compared those numbers with Zika incidence rates and news media mentions of Zika.

The analysis showed that Zika-related Wikipedia page view counts during the outbreak were highly synchronised with mentions of the virus in web and national TV news at both the national and state level.

Although the number of reported Zika cases and the risk of local transmission varied significantly between states, patterns of Wikipedia page views were very similar across the country.

“Wikipedia page view data represent an invaluable and granular resource to study global patterns of collective attention during outbreaks,” said research leader Michele Tizzoni.

“We can use such critical data to find patterns across a country and how behaviour changes by region.”

The research was conducted in collaboration with Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit behind Wikipedia.

All the data for the study will soon be released as a freely available, aggregated, anonymised dataset for others in the research community to build on the insights provided by the researchers.

The final paper is accessible here.