Research reveals shortfalls in government’s online pandemic messaging

Key government messaging shared on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic was ambiguous, difficult to follow and alienated some sections of the public, new research has found.

Studies carried out by academics at Birmingham City University showed that the language used by government and public health bodies on Twitter fell short of clear, concise and direct messages that are most needed in a public health crisis.

The study archived and analysed 84 million tweets relating to COVID-19 to assess how information was shared, delivered and discussed during the first 16 months of the pandemic.

Tweets were collated into a special publicly available database, which allowed for them to be analysed, and researchers from the University submitted key outputs to a Parliamentary Committee analysing the government’s response to the pandemic.

Findings from the research form part of a newly published report from the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts titled Initial lessons from the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Written evidence submitted to the Committee found that messaging from the government and public health bodies:

  •        Lacked clarity about who the messages were directed to
  •        Used long sentences with complex vocabulary, grammar and syntax, which made it difficult to understand
  •        Used language which was ambiguous
  •        Used terminology which was likely to elicit negative reactions
  •        Used terms which could have excluded some intended recipients of messages (e.g. using the term ‘house’ rather than ‘home’)

The project, known as TRAC:COVID, was funded by £77k from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) with an additional £19k of funding provided by Birmingham City University.

Dr Tatiana Tkacukova, Senior Lecturer in English Language at Birmingham City University, was part of the project team working to produce the research and create the database. She said: “The report illustrates that language is important for creating a coherent approach for social media use by government bodies.

The analysis also showed that throughout the pandemic there was widespread support for the key measures used to contain the COVID-19 virus outbreak, including the nationwide periods of lockdown.

Notably, a considerable number of tweets supported the introduction of even stronger measures than those imposed by the government, and many social media users criticised rule-breaking as a sign of selfish behaviour.

The results also indicate a number of users who actively used terms related to conspiracy theories and, although these views were found to be in the minority, they are noted to have played a role in undermining the efforts to contain the pandemic. The full report is available at https://www.traccovid.com/traccovid/reports

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