Social media key to COVID sentiment

For many, social media platforms have been the only way to stay connected to friends, family and loved ones. They’ve also been a steady source of information – and misinformation – but, according to Monash University researchers, there is much we can learn about COVID-19 from social media.

“Australians’ experiences of COVID-19 have played out over social media, with many using the platforms to express the highs and lows of life in lockdown as well as charting the focal points of the pandemic,” according to Monash university analysis.

Social media has made clear the needs and concerns of Australians at various stages of the virus.

Approximately 45,000 social media posts, comments and tweets from various social media platforms were analysed using a tool called vaderSentiment, which takes into account positive, neutral and negative human expressions within.

“The increased reliance on online spaces to connect, express ourselves and seek out information and news about the pandemic during stay-at-home restrictions, or lockdowns in some places, makes the online realm an interesting site to gauge the sentiment of our community during this crisis,” said study lead Dr Verity Trott.

According to Dr Trott, analysis of recent social media activity revealed that masks was the dominant topic, including the correct way to wear them, which ones are best, and where to purchase quality masks.

“Social media users also commonly shared photos of their local area, views of the city and sunsets, and photos of their pets as they spent more time at home, contributing to a positive sentiment online,” said Dr Trott.

Her analysis revealed that more negative sentiments emerged when users expressed concern over telephone and cyber scams, experiences with racism (especially against Chinese or Muslim people), complaints about people breaching restrictions, and concern expressed for those in public housing towers.

Many residents in the towers shared stories and complaints about how the lockdown was managed, including how security guards were breaching protocols.

However, these conversations also often included humorous tones with many jokes and anecdotes, boosting the sentiment to a more positive score.

“Within this dataset, some users posted cries for help online, revealing that they were struggling and unsure they would make it through the ‘second wave’ as a result of losing their job at the start of the pandemic,” said Dr Trott.

“It was wonderful to see these expressions of acute anxiety and depression were met with outpours of sympathy and help, with many users responding with care, concern and encouragement, sharing links to mental health resources, offering suggestions for potential work opportunities, information about how to access superannuation early, as well as general hope for the future and solidarity with frequent statements such as ‘we are all in this together’.”

Recent activity has a more serious tone compared to the early days of COVID-19 hitting Australian shores.

Back in late February and early March, conversations about COVID-19 were dominated by humorous posts about toilet paper, concerns about the cancellation of flights, and speculation about what the novel coronavirus was, how it is transmitted and its incubation period, said Dr Trott.

Once social distancing restrictions were implemented in late March, topics of conversation revolved around more serious matters, such as Centrelink, superannuation, parking, restrictions, hospitals, police, and schools.

The sentiment towards hospitals has become increasingly negative as the pandemic wears on, and sentiment surrounding the police has become very negative, mostly due to complaints about the police response to enforcing restrictions.

The two predominant topics throughout have been Centrelink and JobKeeper, with, surprisingly overall, positive sentiments expressed by users as they offered advice to one another on how to apply.

“The overall positive nature of the discussions online is a reflection not only of the happiness of users but of how people are collectively coming together to provide support during a time of crisis,” said Dr Trott.

“It demonstrates that genuine and productive civic discourse can and is happening online in a time of need.”

Have you been using social media more since lockdowns? What are the prevailing sentiments you’ve noticed most while using social media? Are they mostly positive, or negative?

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