Top of Mind & Tip of Tongue: Things People Retweet in a Pandemic

As the outbreak of COVID-19 spreads globally, more people than ever are now active online and turning to digital tools to stay socially connected.

Social platforms such as Facebook are reporting a record increase in usage and Twitter is proving yet again why it remains one of the top places to find out “What’s happening?” right now. In fact, since the start of the pandemic in January, over 100 million Twitter accounts have tweeted or engaged with hashtags such as #COVID19 and #Coronavirus (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Twitter audience of users who tweeted or engaged with the COVID-19 related hashtags (source: Twitter Ads Platform). 

In this post, we will explore how images are being used in the conversation about this pandemic. We are focusing on tweets with images because the way people are consuming media has been changing; visual communication is becoming increasingly more prevalent on social media platforms, even on text-first platforms like Twitter. Past studies have shown that visual social media posts have more engagement and are often used by both public and private organizations to get people’s attention.

To collect the data, we used Netlytic, a public data collection tool that we have developed in house to study online communities. To keep our analysis manageable, we set up some parameters to narrow down the size of our dataset. For our analysis, we only focused on 1) English-language tweets that have been 2) retweeted at least 1000 times, and 3) had at least 1 image attached. In the end, there were a total of 694 tweets that met our criteria between March 20-31, 2020. These tweets were shared by 500 unique users, with some users posting more than one COVID-19 tweet that garnered at least 1000 retweets.

Who is CovidTweeting?

The top 10 COVID-19 posters come from a wide variety of fields (see Figure 2). They include: news organizations like CNN, NYTimes, BNODesk and Spectatorindex, and individuals who are frequent expert contributors to news outlets like Norbert Elekes, Yamiche and Dr. Dena Grayson. In the top 10 list, there are also individuals who are co-founders or senior producers of mainstream news and partisan outlets, such as Scott Dworkin (@Funder) who hosts the #DworkinReport podcast, John Solomon – a founder of Just News, and Kyle Griffin – a senior producer for MSNBC. 

Figure 2: Top 10 posters (03/ 20 – 03/31, 2020)

Top of Mind and Tip of Tongue

Next, we examined the content of the 694 COVID-19 themed tweets to find out what is on top of people’s mind (e.g., people’s interests) and what is at the tip of their tongue (e.g., what they chose to RT or engaged with). Figure 3 shows the 100 most frequently used words that appeared in 10 or more COVID-19 themed tweets. To understand the context in which these words were used, we manually reviewed a sample of tweets that contained the top 10 most frequently used words. 

Figure 3: Most frequently used words in COVID-19 related tweets with images (Data collection:; Data visualization:

Based on this exploratory analysis, popular English tweets with images can be divided into the following broad category: (1) Official Statistics, (2) News Personalities, (3) Positive Cases Involving Famous People, (4) News From/About Health Workers, (5) Responses to President Trump’s Statements, (6) Flatten the Curve, and (7) Coping with COVID-19 (physically and mentally). 

1. Official Statistics

As this virus is new, people are eager for official and authoritative information about its spread; here’s an example of one such tweet from the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care.

Lesson/Observation: People are not scared of numbers, they are actively seeking out accurate and timely stats about COVID-19 and its spread.

2. News Personalities

This is not surprising. Many journalists and news anchors already have a following pre-pandemic. It’s only natural that COVID-19 tweets from them would generate more engagement.

Lesson/Observation: In a pandemic, media personalities still get to be taste-makers.

3. Positive Cases Involving Famous People

Tweets about famous people contracting the virus such as Prince Charles, Tom Hanks and Minster Boris Johnson.

Lesson/Observation: We love our celebrities, pandemic or no pandemic.

4. News From/About Health Workers

Tweets about how hospitals and healthcare professionals are dealing with the increasing number of the COVID-19 cases. Many tweets in this category highlight difficult working conditions of healthcare professionals.

Lesson/Observation: People are genuinely appreciative of the sacrifice that healthcare workers are making for their community.

5. Responses to President Trump’s Statements

President Trump is a polarizing figure. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been over 40 false and misleading claims by Trump. (See our Misinformation Watch Dashboard.) As a result, his tweets and other statements often generate a high level of engagement among both his supporters and detractors.

Lesson/Observation: Trump remains a polarizing figure pandemic or no pandemic.

6. #FlattentheCurve

Tweets in this category advocate for measures to reduce the spread of the virus and why it’s critical to observe the recommendation for physical distancing. Here is a sample tweet from this category.

Lesson/Observation: People want to help and are willing to rally around things that they believe can make a difference.

7. Coping with COVID-19

The final category includes tweets with tips for coping mentally and physically during this difficult time.

Lesson/Observation: The pandemic is affecting people deeply and they are looking for solutions to help them cope.

In summary, based on a content analysis of popular and visual tweets related to COVID-19, there is some good news. Notably, while there is no shortage of false claims and misleading information about the virus shared on social media, it is evident that at least some of the most shared content on Twitter comes from credible sources such as mainstream media and public health authorities. This finding is in line with what we are also observing based on a larger sample of COVID-19 related tweets. As shown in Figure 4 below, on average nearly 50% of COVID-19 related tweets contained links to trusted mainstream news sources (see the large green area in the stacked chart below), with only about 0.5% of links leading to sites known for propagating false and misleading claims about COVID-19 (see the black area in the chart). Visit our COVID-19 Twitter Dashboard to explore our database of links shared by accounts tweeting about COVID-19.

Figure 4: COVID-19 Twitter Dashboard showing the proportion of links shared with keywords “Coronavirus” or “COVID” grouped by domain types. 

Post by Anatoliy Gruzd, Kelly Huynh and Philip Mai

Posted in Case Studies Tagged with: , ,