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Celebrities used social media to influence COVID-19 perceptions


Researchers analyze Twitter to see how public reacts to pandemic threats, treatments.

Entertainers, athletes, politicians, and newscaster likely shaped public reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic by using Twitter to share their own risk perceptions, ideologies, and techniques to protect their own health.

The results were part of a new study that examined patterns in a pool of 13 million tweets by people in the public eye (PIPE) from Jan. 1, 2020, to March 1, 2022. Based on those, “findings suggestthe presence of consistent patterns of emotional content shared by PIPE for the first 2 years of the COVID-19 pandemic influenced public opinion and largely stimulated online public discourse,” said the report published in BMJ Health & Care Informatics, and a news release about the data.

Who were the influential tweeters? The group included Podcaster Joe Rogan, television host Tucker Carlson, rapper Nicki Minaj, football star Aaron Rodgers, tennis champion Novak Djokovic, guitar legend Eric Clapton, Sen. Rand Paul, the late broadcaster Phil Valentine, President Donald J. Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, political commentator Candace Owens, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

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Researchers drilled down to 45,255 tweets from 34,07 unique authors, tallying 16.32 million likes on the social media website.

For the athletes and entertainers, and the news media personalities, the sentiments about their tweets generally were more negative than positive.

For politicians, “it became increasingly clear that this subgroup was the most tumultuous,” because they led public opinion while some questioned their credibility, the researchers said.

“The spread, reaction and engagement by the public to posts made by politicians online was indicative of a strong level of influence, suggesting politicians play key roles in ensuring population health and should be committed to promoting health-protective behaviours rather than sensational falsehoods,” the study said. A number of tweets about the pols challenged their public health knowledge to advise constituents about medical decisions, the study said.

What comes next?

That leaves social media as a tool to determine whether public health and prevention strategies succeed. Social media also is a risk to those strategies because “the spread of misinformation and disinformation by those with influence stand to undermine programmes supporting protective measures such as vaccination,” the study said.

Public health officials must respond with campaigns to direct users with COVID-19 related questions to reliable sources for evidence-based recommendations and instruction. They and researchers “could be more proactive in creating collaborations with PIPE to share more positive messaging regarding vaccination,” the researchers said.

Online, programmers could create intelligent algorithmic systems that detect patterns and anomalies to boost messaging from social media influencers who support the COVID-19 mitigation efforts, the study said.

“Exploring celebrity influence on public attitude towards the COVID-19 pandemic: social media shared sentiment analysis,” was published Feb. 21, 2023, in BMJ Health & Care Informatics.

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