Life in lockdown: what social media can teach us about the COVID-19 experience
Australians’ experiences of COVID-19 have played out over social media, with many using the platforms to express the highs and lows of life in lockdown as well as charting the focal points of the pandemic.
An analysis from Monash University, released today, has revealed the needs and concerns of Australian social media users at various stages of the virus.
Dr Verity Trott, Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies from the Faculty of Arts’ Media, Film and Journalism School, conducted topic modelling and analysis of the sentiment of approximately 45,000 social media posts, comments and tweets that were scraped from social media platforms including Twitter, Reddit and the Australian site Whirlpool between February and July this year.
Using a tool called vaderSentiment, the sentiment analysis takes into account positive, neutral and negative human expressions portrayed within the comments, tweets and posts.
Dr Trott also examined specific hashtags, forums and groups that aligned with various metropolitan and regional areas in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania.
“With metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire region returning to stage 3 restrictions, people are going online to connect with extended family, friends and our communities,” she said.
"The increased reliance on online spaces to connect, express ourselves and seek out information and news about the pandemic during stay-at-home restrictions, or lockdowns in some places, makes the online realm an interesting site to gauge the sentiment of our community during this crisis.”
Dr Trott’s analysis of the days after the announcement of the return to stage 3 restrictions revealed that masks was the dominant topic, with many users informing one another about the correct way to wear them, which ones are best, and where to purchase quality masks.
Social media users also commonly shared photos of their local area, views of the city and sunsets, and photos of their pets as they spent more time at home, contributing to a positive sentiment online.
Dr Trott found negative sentiments in recent weeks emerged when users expressed concern over telephone and cyber scams, experiences with racism (especially against Chinese or Muslim people), and complaints about people breaching restrictions.
There was also concern expressed about the experiences of those in public housing towers, sharing stories from residents and complaints about how the lockdown was managed.
Unsurprisingly, there were many discussions about the security guards breaching protocols but these conversations often included a humorous tone with many jokes, boosting the sentiment to a more positive score.
“Within this dataset, some users posted cries for help online, revealing that they were struggling and unsure they would make it through the ‘second wave’ as a result of losing their job at the start of the pandemic,” Dr Trott said.
"It was wonderful to see these expressions of acute anxiety and depression were met with outpours of sympathy and help with many users responding with care, concern and encouragement, sharing links to mental health resources, offering suggestions for potential work opportunities, information about how to access superannuation early, as well as general hope for the future and solidarity with frequent statements such as ‘we are all in this together.’.
When the crisis was only just beginning in Australia in late February and early March, Dr Trott found conversations about COVID-19 were dominated by humorous posts about toilet paper, concerns about the cancellation of flights, and speculation about what the novel coronavirus was, how it is transmitted and its incubation period.
As restrictions were implemented across Australia in late March, these conversations shifted with users discussing Centrelink, superannuation, parking, restrictions, hospitals, police, and schools amongst other topics.
Dr Trott found the sentiment around hospitals became increasingly negative as the pandemic escalated with complaints about limited access to GPs within regional areas as well as the suspension of elective surgery.
Sentiment surrounding the police was very negative with much of this relating to complaints about the police response to enforcing restrictions.
Two key topics of conversation throughout have been Centrelink and JobKeeper with surprisingly overall positive sentiments expressed by users as they offered advice to one another on how to apply.
“The overall positive nature of the discussions online is a reflection not only of the happiness of users but of how people are collectively coming together to provide support during a time of crisis,” Dr Trott said.
“It demonstrates that genuine and productive civic discourse can and is happening online in a time of need.”