New research from the University of California at Irvine suggests that Donald Trump’s tweets influenced the spread of misinformation about COVID-19. The study, which appears in JAMA Network Open, examined social media data from Twitter to capture changes in the public’s coronavirus-related attitudes.
“I’m interested in creative ways to help people and save lives. A broad major problem stopping public health from saving lives is that it takes a long time to learn who needs help,” said study author Sean D. Young, an associate professor and executive director of the UC Institute for Prediction Technology.
“Monitoring near-real time data sources like social media, especially among influencers, can help solve that problem. And I thought it would entertain people to use Trump’s tweets as a case study.”
For their study, the researchers analyzed 5,945 tweets about COVID-19 that were posted on the social media site between September 23 and October 8, 2020. Young and his colleagues were particularly interested in three time periods: The period before Trump’s announcement on Twitter that he had contracted COVID-19, the period after the announcement on October 1, and the period after his tweet on October 5 in which he implored “Don’t be afraid of COVID.”
Prior to Trump’s infection announcement, 19.5% of tweets expressed the belief that COVID-19 was a hoax while 13.3% expressed the belief that the disease was not serious. After his announcement, those percentages dropped all the way down to 3.1% and 1.4%, respectively. Following his October 5 tweet, however, the percentages jumped back up to 10.0% and 12.0%.
“These results suggest that some members of the public adapted beliefs in response to President Trump’s tweets and that social media may be used as a near real-time data source to capture these changing perspectives, including COVID-19–related misinformation,” the researchers wrote in their study.
“Given the current political polarization, people probably take away that this research supports their pre-existing views about politics and the pandemic,” Young told PsyPost. “However, what I hope they also take home is the importance of social media data for monitoring and improving health, and the influencing role of leaders in affecting our attitudes and behaviors.”
But using social media websites to examine public attitudes also has some limitations.
“This was based on Twitter data, which we know not everyone uses, limiting the generalizability of findings. Also, we need tools built to make these types of approaches accessible to public health,” Young said.
The study, “Public Attitudes About COVID-19 in Response to President Trump’s Social Media Posts“, was authored by Dominic Arjuna Ugarte, William G. Cumberland, Lidia Flores, and Sean D. Young.