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How you’re reacting to coronavirus depends on the social media platform you use

It’s impossible to escape discussion about the coronavirus. Wherever you go online, discussions are dominated by the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with social media users swapping tips, tricks and information – as well as varying levels of accurate advice – about its spread.

But a new paper by Italian researchers shows that what may at first seem like a unified, global conversation is actually very disparate, with different platforms focusing on different parts of the coronavirus issue.

A team of nine academics have analysed the way information about COVID-19 is spread and shared on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, and Gab. The team looked at more than eight million comments posted over 45 days since the existence of coronavirus first caught the attention of the world. They also analysed user engagement and interest around the coronavirus.

How they did it

The team monitored key terms around the coronavirus, based on Google Trends’ related queries, covering phrases and words like “pandemic” and “Wuhan”. They found nearly 3.4 million users had posted comments about coronavirus-related issues across the different social platforms.

What the researchers found was interesting: on Reddit and YouTube, discussions revolved primarily around the death toll and rising number of infection rates. On Twitter, the main topic of discussion was the suspension of suspended flights and repatriation, as well as the economic impact and advice on how to protect yourself against the spread of the virus.

Instagram was different: the main discussion points on the photo-sharing platform, accounting for nearly half of all interactions the researchers measured there, was focused on the “Chinese crisis”. 

On Gab, the social media platform established after Twitter was accused of censoring extreme viewpoints, more than half of the discussions measured by the researchers revolved around the unfolding crisis on the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that was a crucible for infection, and the notion that the spread of the virus was the result of biological warfare.

Reddit has in-depth conversations

The number of different topics discussed also shines some light on the makeup of each platform’s users. Redditors managed to cover 19 different areas, including the censorship of the Chinese internet by tech giant Tencent to try and stifle news about the coronavirus escaping from China. Perhaps expectedly, Instagram had the least in-depth analysis of the subject, focusing mainly on advice on how to protect yourself, the mounting death toll, and comparison with other viruses.

“Gab is the environment more susceptible to misinformation diffusion,” the researchers write, but “information marked either as reliable or questionable do not present significant differences in their spreading patterns.”

Social media struggles with real news

The findings support previous research that demonstrates that on social media, fake news travels faster, further and deeper than real news. That research, conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), tracked stories and how they spread on Twitter.

But not all social networks are created equal. While Reddit’s unreliable posts accounted for just 5% of the reliable posts about coronavirus shared on the platform, 7% on YouTube, and 11% on Twitter, it was much higher on Gab – 70%, according to the research.

And those posts were reacted with much more than ones containing reliable information on Gab. The volume of engagements with questionable content is 270% greater than the engagement with reliable content.

“Our analysis suggests that information spreading is driven by the interaction paradigm imposed by the specific social media or/and by the specific interaction patterns of groups of users engaged with the topic,” the authors say.

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