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Analysis of social media shows ‘confusion reigns’ around COVID-19 in rural swing state communities


By Tim Marema
The Daily Yonder

Social-media users in rural areas are increasingly confused by contradictory information about Covid-19, including whether the disease is as deadly as reported, how effective protective gear is, and whether untested treatments are effective.

But the confusion has not decreased the large proportion of social-media posts that criticize President Donald Trump for the way he has managed the pandemic.

The findings are part of the most recent analysis of publicly shared social media posted by individuals in rural parts of swing states that could decide the 2020 presidential election (Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania). The report is commissioned by One Country, a 501(c)4 nonprofit led by Democrats that focuses on rural voters.

The graph breaks out the content of political comments that are part of the study of public social-media posts from rural parts of six swing states. Anti-Trump comments dominated the discussion. Rather than dispute anti-Trump comments directly, some social-media users focused blame on Democratic governors for high infection rates in nursing homes. (One Country graphic)(Click for larger image)

“Information sharing is leading to confusion, rather than creating clarity,” said the authors of the study, Impact Social, a consulting firm that specializes in social media analysis.

In the early days of the pandemic, rural Americans in swing states used social media to share straightforward information preventing the spread of Covid-19 with hand-washing or avoiding touching one’s face.

“Confusion now reigns” over basic information about the effectiveness of drugs or personal protective equipment.

The latest study is based on 84,000 public posts created by individuals in rural counties in the six targeted states. The researchers use various techniques to eliminate reposts, bots, duplications, or non-human sources. From this sifted data, researchers randomly sample posts, which are read by humans and coded based on content.

The new study shows an increase in posts expressing confusion about various aspects of Covid-19. Some of that comes from claims of “armchair doctors and epidemiologists” who share scientifically invalid information. “As a result, the volume and inconsistency of information prevents people from getting a sense of the truth,” the report says.

Another piece of the confusion comes from repeated claims that Covid-19 is not as deadly as scientists say. “This conversation is an ever-widening echo chamber which people join and contribute their ‘fact’ or argument to [in order to] reinforce their central point – they are being lied to,” the report says.

While this conversation sows seeds of doubt, another stream of posts comes from people with direct experience with Covid-19. This group of social-media users describes their own experiences of contracting Covid-19 or relates stories about people they know who have died from the infection.

Although confusion has increased, that hasn’t altered the proportion of anti-Trump social media posts coming from rural areas. For the second week in a row, half of all political comments in the study criticized Trump for the way he is handling the pandemic.

(One Country graphic)(Click for larger image)

The report says the small fraction of comments supporting the president (4% of political comments this week) are not enough to blunt the criticisms. “As a consequence, the powerful accusation, ‘You dropped the ball on this one, every death is on your hands,’ has gone unanswered,” the analysis says.

Trump supporters instead have focused their comments on governors over what they consider to be excessive lockdown policies. These governors, such as Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, “are either heroes or villains or somewhere in between depending on how each person feels about the disease and where they sit politically.”

Other social-media users blame Democratic governors for excessive numbers of deaths in nursing homes.

Despite early claims that “we’re all in this together,” the pandemic has not created a kumbaya moment in the United States. “The left and right continue to trade insults as each accuses the other of being responsible for the outbreak, wrecking the economy, and politicizing the crisis.”

Overall sentiment toward the president got worse for the second week in a row. Trump’s “net sentiment” (shown in the graph above) is the the difference between positive and negative statements about the president. This figure now stands at minus 46, 10 points worse than last week.

That figure shouldn’t be confused with voter preferences based on public opinion polling, warns Nikki Usher, Ph.D., an associate professor of journalism at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She said since social-media users are self-selecting, they don’t constitute a representative sample of the overall population. So the findings of the social-media poll won’t necessarily translate into votes in November.

Former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a founder of the organization that sponsored the social-media study, said she thinks anti-Trump posts are a measurement of activation of rural voters. (See related story.) The large proportion of anti-Trump sentiment among rural social-media users could result in more Democratic turnout in November, she said.

Other highlights of this week’s study are the following:

• Rural social-media users continued to express concerns about mental health during the pandemic. “There are plenty of examples of people getting help either through friendship groups or volunteer organizations.

• The health risks associated with Covid-19 have become less abstract as the pandemic has progressed. People are discussing the specifics of where infections and deaths are occurring. “Increasingly the figures discussed are more exact, the geographical details precise, and the comparisons detailed.”

• People are trying hard to remain positive about their economic prospects. “Yet there are a great many who just feel despair,” the report says. People worry that their economic situation will not improve after the economy reopens.

• Conspiracy theorists, primarily focused on China, occupy a small but steady niche in the conversation. Also, people who oppose vaccinations are using the pandemic “to make their case and invite people to sign a petition against mandatory vaccinations.”


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