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Study: People Became Desensitized to COVID-19 on Twitter

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that at the beginning of the pandemic, news-related posts on Twitter were anxiety-ridden. But as deaths climbed, those responses became less concerned.
  • This may be in part due to desensitization, where constant threat and anxiety numbs your response and goal-oriented behavior.
  • More research is needed to better understand how to best get across public health messaging in future health emergencies.

In the early days of the pandemic, fear and panic skyrocketed. And due to social distancing measures, many turned to social media, taking these feelings online.

But those raw emotions didn't necessarily ebb and flow over time, alongside COVID-19 cases. New media research from the University of California, Davis suggests that over time, individuals became desensitized to COVID-19 news, even as health threats increased.

Lead study author Hannah Stevens, a doctoral student in communication at UC-Davis, worked with her colleagues to examine COVID-19 news articles shared via Twitter early in the pandemic.

At first, she tells Verywell, the news-related tweets were anxiety-ridden. During that same time, there were also spikes in panic-buying, extreme social distancing, and strict quarantine measures. 

But as deaths climbed, Twitter saw less-concerned responses to COVID-19 news, along with increases in societal risk-taking.

"While this is certainly a concerning trend, I was not surprised to find that people are becoming desensitized to the impact of scary COVID-19 news," Stevens says. "When we frequently experience something scary, we can become less sensitive to it. We see this frequently with research investigating desensitization to violence in media, including death."

Even if desensitization is a natural response, the research also suggests that media strategies can change. The researchers hope that this study can begin a conversation on how to motivate the public to take action during an ongoing emergency when the anxiety and fear has worn off.

The analysis was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Infodemiology in mid-July.

Anxious News and Desensitization

After collecting news-sharing tweets posted over 11 months from January to December 2020, Stevens and colleagues used social media text analyses to examine the anxiety levels in the news articles and related tweets.

Specifically, they narrowed the analysis down to 1465 news articles and corresponding tweets containing the terms “COVID-19,” “COVID,” “pandemic,” and “coronavirus." Then, they analyzed the texts of both to calculates the percentage of anxiety words relative to all words.

Anxiety words included "threat," "risk," and "vulnerable." For example, if 15 out of 745 words in a given article were anxiety words, it would score a 2.04%.

After collecting all the anxiety info in those tweets and news articles, Stevens and colleagues then compared anxiety levels to the COVID-19 death toll on the days the posts were shared.

In their analyses, they narrowed in on a few major findings:

  • Tweets that shared links to anxious articles were more likely to be anxious as well
  • Tweet anxiety rose rapidly with articles when the death toll was still low (earlier on in the pandemic)
  • For both articles and tweets, anxiety levels decreased as the death toll climbed
  • As the death toll climbed, even high-scoring anxious articles were less likely to elicit high-scoring anxious tweets.

Overall, as the pandemic became more deadly, news reports and tweets responding to the news were less anxious. And even when news articles used anxiety-ridden language, they were less likely to be shared with anxious tweets.

"Throughout the pandemic, the public has been repeatedly exposed to scary media reports of COVID-19 health risk and deaths," Stevens says. "It is not surprising that over time, individuals may be experiencing diminished anxiety, even in the face of an increasing threat."

This emotional blunting, she says—at least through tweets, coupled with people engaging in more risk-taking activities—could be due to a process called desensitization.

What Is Desensitization?

The process by which cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to a stimulus are reduced or eliminated over prolonged and/or repeated exposure.

The term is often used to refer to violence, and can be seen as an adaptive response: If you're constantly exposed to a threatening situation, gradually learning to ignore it helps make life more bearable.

"Although increasing anxiety and fear might prompt security-seeking behavior," the authors write, "these emotions may also be paralyzing; some measure of desensitization can facilitate continuing with necessary everyday tasks."

What This Means For You

If you’ve yet to get vaccinated, you can find a vaccination clinic near you, here. If you are vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that you wear a mask indoors if you live in a county where the COVID-19 case rate falls within the "substantial" or "high" range on their data tracker.

Adjusting Public Health Messaging

Although we can collectively recall the fearful toilet-paper buying, hand-sanitizing, masking-up, and home-staying, it didn't last that long. The pandemic got much worse, and more people died, as the public became desensitized to the news.

This survey is on the smaller side and only looks at Twitter. The anxiety-word analyses could have missed a few things too since a coding tool does not offer the same nuance as human coders.

Still, it’s one of the first to hone in on the way information sharing through social media influences how we think and feel about important public health information. Stevens says she hopes this study incentivizes more conversation around how to best motivate the public in times of emergency.

"I’m worried that if COVID-19 takes another turn for the worse, the public may be less inclined to follow recommended health guidelines, for example wearing masks and social distancing," she says. "While our study cannot help re-sensitize the public, I hope that it can be an impetus to get that discussion started. Hopefully, it will help people recognize that just because they’re not feeling acutely anxious doesn’t mean the problem has gone away."

If in the future, or even in the context of the Delta variant, the public’s level of desensitization to health news can be taken into account, more pain and suffering could be avoided.

"We need to think of new ways of communicating with the public," Stevens says. "Desensitization is an emotional process; not all appeals to change behavior are rooted in emotion. More research is needed to determine effective means of communicating with a desensitized public."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Stevens HR, Oh YJ, Taylor LD. Desensitization to Fear-Inducing COVID-19 Health News on Twitter: Observational Study. JMIR Infodemiology 2021;1(1):e26876 doi:10.2196/26876

  2. Funk JB, Baldacci HB, Pasold T, Baumgardner J. Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: is there desensitization? J Adolesc. 2004 Feb;27(1):23-39. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2003.10.005