Vancouver Sun

COVID tweets didn't reflect local needs, study says


A new study that examined thousands of tweets from Canadian public health agencies and officials during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic suggests many struggled to tailor messaging to local needs.

The study published online this month in the journal Health & Place analyzed close to 7,000 tweets from public health agencies and officials at all levels of government over the first six months of last year.

Researcher­s at McMaster University and the University of Waterloo found the tweets initially focused on sharing informatio­n from experts, before shifting to promoting health measures such as social distancing.

But they found the messages often failed to reflect the situation and risk level in local communitie­s despite the significan­t variations in transmissi­on levels and other factors.

“Despite the need for public health communicat­ions to effectivel­y convey the level of COVID-19 infection risk in particular jurisdicti­ons, the tweets we analyzed did not always contain relevant messaging or risk communicat­ion strategies that would have helped citizens in those jurisdicti­ons assess risks to health,” the study said.

Accounts related to urban areas largely used tweets to disseminat­e informatio­n, rather than for other purposes, and the percentage of tweets aimed at promoting specific actions decreased over time, the study found.

“Given that the risks of community transmissi­on of COVID-19 are higher in denser urban areas with larger population­s ... action tweets could be viewed as a useful communicat­ion tool to help drive changes to behaviour among urban individual­s to reduce disease spread,” it said.

In comparison, accounts related to rural areas — where transmissi­on was typically lower — primarily used Twitter to encourage certain actions, though residents may have benefited from more informatio­n about the virus, the study found.

While some local agencies tweeted messaging that was relevant to their particular circumstan­ces, those accounts did not have large numbers of followers, drawing fewer per capita than provincial or national accounts, the study found.

“Tweets containing particular messaging deployed at specific times for audiences located in specific places could be better utilized to tackle periods of increased disease transmissi­on during the COVID-19 pandemic and other future public health crises,” it said.

“Crafting communicat­ions that are relevant for the levels of risk that audience members are likely encounteri­ng in a given geographic context could increase the uptake of those communicat­ions and result in better population health outcomes.”

The study also found only two per cent of tweets examined addressed misinforma­tion and myths surroundin­g COVID-19.

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