Brock study finds balanced discussion on COVID-19, but 'quite a bit' of anti-Asian racism
Researchers examined 1.5 million tweets about COVID posted in Ontario between March 12 and Oct. 31, 2020
Conversation on Twitter is surprisingly nuanced and balanced when it comes to views on COVID-19 pandemic measures in Ontario, a new Brock University-led research has found.
But Antony Chum, assistant professor of health sciences, and graduate students Andrew Nielsen and Zachary Bellows also found a high volume of the 1.5 million tweets about COVID-19 posted in Ontario between March 12 and Oct. 31, 2020 were racist.
"The most important thing we found was that the full lockdown in Ontario versus the partial lockdown was associated with the most negative public opinion and the most disagreements among Twitter users," Chum told CBC Hamilton.
"The other finding that sort of surprises us was when we looked into the negative tweets, there were quite a bit of anti-Asian and racist tweets among them."
Chum said about 10 per cent of the negative tweets "used hashtags like China virus or Wuhan virus, which were more racializing in tone, and they tend to have a more blaming tone."
Even though we found that negative tweets are associated with business closure or provincial lockdowns, we also see that indirectly, the negativity and racism towards these communities can increase.- Andrew Nielson - Graduate student
Nielsen said the "significant amount of anti-Asian and racist sentiment" among the negative COVID-19 tweets was cause for concern.
"Even though we found that negative tweets are associated with business closure or provincial lockdowns, we also see that indirectly, the negativity and racism toward these communities can increase," he said.
"It's important that public health practitioners and policy makers take into consideration this form of racist sentiment during the pandemic, and create strategies to address false perceptions and COVID-19 myths, which can marginalize and harm Asian communities."
The researchers were able to download the negative tweets, but a lot of them have since been deleted by the platform or by the users themselves.
"Twitter has a pretty strong anti-discrimination policy, so they do get deleted and moderated and censored at some point," Chum said.
"Some people might go back and delete the tweets on their own."
The researchers were looking for three trends:
- The volume of COVID-related tweets, especially following major government announcements.
- The emotional tone of the posting.
- The level of disagreement or polarization during Twitter discussions.
An artificial intelligence-powered natural language processing program categorized tweets as positive, negative or neutral.
- Higher new COVID-19 case counts in Ontario increased negative opinions. Each additional 100 cases per day increased negative tweets by three per cent.
- The effect of business closures on public opinion depended on the number of new COVID-19 cases. Closing businesses when there were 50 new cases was associated with three times more negative tweets compared to closing with 200 new cases.
- The announcement of additional public health restrictions was associated with 544 additional tweets but did not affect public opinion.
During a provincewide lockdown, there were five times more negative tweets compared to a partial lockdown.
Bellows notes that, as expected, the volume of tweets rose with new COVID-related announcements.
"While there was a lot more discussion in general, we found that, overall, there weren't too many people up in arms on either side," he said.
Chum says monitoring and analyzing Twitter posts is a good way for policy makers to get a handle on what the general public is saying about COVID restrictions. He estimates that 40 per cent of Canadians are regular Twitter users.
"Understanding people's reaction to restrictions is very important because it affects public compliance," he said.
"If you don't agree or you feel very angry about the policies, you might partially adopt. For example, you might wear a mask and not cover your nose.
"Public health practitioners will be really interested in knowing whether people agree with it or they're happy with these policies or not because otherwise they might secretly gather at home or not follow all the restrictions properly."
Crucial to understand public's reaction to restrictions
Nielsen agrees "it's really important" for policy makers, governments and municipalities to take the views being expressed by members of the public into consideration as they implement new measures.
"In order for public health policy makers and local governments to implement public health measures that are effective, it's crucial to understand how the general public are currently reacting to restrictions. People are more likely to comply with public health measures and restrictions that are associated with more positive opinions and less disagreement," he said.
"So, when public health practitioners are trying to create effective messaging and restrictions that will reduce the spread of COVID-19, social media platforms like Twitter can be a great platform to capture the emotion and opinions of millions of Ontarians.
"If we can anticipate the public response to these future restrictions such as lockdowns and business closures, then policy makers can potentially adjust the messaging and delivery of COVID-19 public health restrictions to be more accepted by the general public," Nielsen said.
Chum, Bellows and Nielsen collaboratively conducted the study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal JMIR Public Health and Surveillance.
Other team members include Brock research associate Eddie Farrell, software engineer Pierre-Nicolas Durette, Prof. Gerald Cupchik from the University of Toronto and Prof. Juan M. Banda from Georgia State University.