Global sentiments toward COVID-19 shifting from fear to anger

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In a new study, researchers found the fear that people developed at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak has given way to anger over the course of the pandemic

The research was conducted by a team at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) and elsewhere.

In the study, the team analyzed over 20 million tweets in English related to the coronavirus.

To identify trends in the expression of the four basic emotions—fear, anger, sadness, and joy—and examine the narratives underlying those emotions, the team first collected 20,325,929 tweets in English containing the keywords “Wuhan,” “corona,” “nCov,” and “COVID.”

The underlying emotions of tweets were then analyzed.

The team found that tweets reflecting fear, while dominant at the start of the outbreak due to the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, have tapered off over the course of the pandemic.

Xenophobia was a common theme among anger-related tweets, which progressively increased, peaking on 12 March—a day after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

The anger then evolved to reflect feelings arising from isolation and social seclusion.

Accompanying this later shift is the emergence of tweets that show joy, which the researchers say suggested a sense of pride, gratitude, hope, and happiness.

Tweets that reflected sadness doubled, although they remain proportionally lower than the other emotions.

The rapid evolution of global COVID-19 sentiments within a short period of time points to a need to address increasingly volatile emotions through strategic communication by government and health authorities, as well as responsible behavior by netizens before they give rise to unintended outcomes.

The team says worldwide, strong negative sentiments of fear were detected in the early phases of the pandemic but by early April, these emotions have gradually been replaced by anger.

The findings suggest that collective issues driven by emotions, such as shared experiences of the distress of the COVID-19 pandemic including large-scale social isolation and the loss of human lives, are developing.

If such overbearing public emotions are not addressed through clear and decisive communication by authorities, citizen groups and social media stakeholders, there is potential for the emergence of issues such as breeding mistrust in the handling of the disease, and a belief in online falsehoods that could hinder the ongoing control of the disease.

One author of the study is Professor May O. Lwin of NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

The study is published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance.

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