Twelve months on, we may be suffering from COVID-19 information overload, but a year ago it was a different matter. The world was frightened and people were eager for facts and information about the deadly new virus.

Twelve months on, we may be suffering from COVID-19 information overload, but a year ago it was a different matter. The world was frightened and people were eager for facts and information about the deadly new virus. 

Faced with an unknown threat, people initially flocked to experts, scientists and health authorities.  But, as the weeks progressed and the gravity of the pandemic intensified, reliance on experts and trust in them dwindled.

Out of fear, fatigue with anti-pandemic measures and frustration at the inability of countries to control the deadly virus, signs of scepticism began to emerge. 

For researchers from across the academic spectrum, COVID-19 offered an opportunity to study and understand first-hand public responses to the first pandemic of the digital age.

Sociologists and demographers at Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, led by Dr Ridhi Kashyap wanted to explore international reactions to COVID-19 as it moved beyond China and reached Europe.  How did information-seeking and trust in scientists and health experts evolve?

To answer this question, Dr Kashyap’s team acted quickly to capture responses to the virus, from the end of February to mid-April 2020, as the number of deaths increased and Italy’s northern regions [the first area affected after China] went into lockdown. The team gathered data from three social media platforms in Italy: Twitter, Telegram (a messaging app) and Facebook.

With social media full of conversations about the virus, it was possible to collect digital trace data in real time – to see what was going on, what people were thinking and, critically, where they were getting their information.

‘We could analyse these digital footprints leading to where people sought information about this novel threat. What’s more, we could conduct rapid online surveys to reveal if reliance on experts and trust in their information was sustained, grew or waned,’ says Dr Kashyap.

On Twitter, they examined  more than two million tweets and retweets in Italy which used the post popular Coronavirus hashtags (#coronavirusitalia and #covid19italia). 

They classified the accounts which posted the tweets into different categories such as scientists, health authorities, media, politicians and government authorities. They then focussed on retweets of the most popular accounts, because they signal interest in the issue and agreement in what is being said.

At the start of the outbreak, the findings showed considerable increases in attention was given to scientists and health authorities. But in mid-March, shortly after the nation went into lockdown, retweets of health experts began to decrease.

On Telegram, the team gathered around 9,000 responses on how keen people were to receive information about COVID-19 from doctors, scientists, the government, health authorities, such as the WHO - and from celebrities. The questionnaires went out in four waves. The first went soon after the first case was detected, then three more, roughly a week apart.

Similar to the findings from Twitter, the Telegram results initially revealed increases in interest in information coming from scientists, health and government authorities, as opposed to celebrities. But, as the weeks passed, that level of interest waned.  

Facebook is the country’s most popular social media platform, with 60% of the population using it.  From the middle to end of March 2020, the team quizzed 900 respondents, drawn from Facebook users in Lombardy and Veneto, the area hit hardest by the disease.

In this survey fielded on Facebook, the team asked questions about health behaviours and knowledge linked to COVID-19, as well questions about support for public health measures to contain COVID-19.

The goal of the survey was to examine public health knowledge and attitudes, but also assess the willingness to modify health beliefs when exposed to correct information from experts. The survey asked questions such as: Are antibiotics helpful in preventing the Coronavirus infection? Can young people also contract COVID-19? Is washing hands useful for preventing the Coronavirus infection?

When respondents gave an incorrect answer to one of these questions, a randomly-selected group was shown information relevant to the question without a clear source, whereas the other half was shown the same information, but with an explicit clarification that it was coming an expert public health source, such as the WHO or Italian Institute for Public Health.

The survey found that, although levels of basic health knowledge about COVID-19 was good, signs of scepticism had emerged of public health experts among those who held incorrect beliefs. For those who had incorrect beliefs, showing information as coming from expert sources led them to become hardened in their beliefs and less likely to modify them. Trust in science and public health authorities was linked to better knowledge of COVID-19 and support for public health measures.

Dr Kashyap says, ‘Our research proves that trust in experts cannot be taken for granted. Yes, people crave trusted professional information at the beginning of an emergency, about which they know little. But that trust is fragile and can fall away...we saw that, although interest in the pandemic did not diminish, interest and trust in what health experts were saying certainly did.

‘We know too well the evolution of the virus, the different stages: waves, peaks, variants and lockdowns. Our study shows that trust moves too.’

She adds, ‘Evolution continues. Now we are entering a new phase of the pandemic: the vaccine roll-out. We hope it will lead us back to normality and this hope brought about by the scientific achievements of a new vaccine have the potential to revitalise trust in scientists and health experts again.’

In this context, it is more important than ever to ensure that reliable and trustworthy health information is presented and accepted by the public. Health experts are rallying against anti-vaxx information and its collateral damage of lives lost due to vaccine hesitancy. In the UK, the rates of those accepting the vaccine have generally been good – which suggests that public health experts are being heeded, although this cannot be taken for granted.

But some populations are believed less enthusiastic, with estimates suggesting less than half in some countries are prepared to be vaccinated. The information battle continues.  

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