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Communicating Public Health: Method review and overview of key announcements

9th September 2020

Our Communicating Public Health series provides a window into the rich conversation that took place online during the national lockdown in the UK, when almost half of the British public (47%) reported spending more time on social media. Conducting research on behalf of Future Care Capital, Ipsos MORI analysed some 3,692,129 online posts,  from February through to June 2020, using a combination of automated machine-led analysis, manual coding, statistical modelling and qualitative investigation.

This, the first of four publications, provides a method review and an overview of key announcements.

Key findings:

  • Throughout the pandemic, the policy areas that generated the highest volumes of discussion social media were those that affected the vast majority, if not all, of the general public. These included lockdown guidelines, testing and vaccines and the Government’s recovery strategy. In addition, there were also several peaks of activity sparked by unplanned events: news that Boris Johnson had tested positive for COVID-19 and reports that the Prime Minister’s advisor, Dominic Cummings, had broken lockdown restrictions.
  • Conversations about policy areas that affected subsets of the population – including quarantine guidelines, shielding guidelines and social care – were less evident on social media. Together, these findings imply that social media is a poor tool for communicating with those who are most likely to be impacted by such policy announcements.
  • The data presented provides indicative evidence that there is, at the very least, a symbiotic relationship between social media content posted by mainstream media outlets and that posted by members of the general public. It seems likely that a high level of mainstream media activity has the potential to propel conversation about key issues at the expense of others which receive less attention. There is therefore a risk that some policy areas receive little critical evaluation and debate on social media compared to other policy areas. This has implications for awareness, understanding and discussion of, for example, social care in the UK (which received considerably less attention from social media users during the period analysed).
  • Two further characteristics were also evident within the formal announcements led by government and public health bodies. Firstly, that public health messages have to compete with, and can be derailed by, unplanned events. Secondly, that future public health messages will need to overcome a falling rate of discussion about coronavirus on social media if the announcements are to be widely heard.
"Our work with Ipsos MORI makes use of social media data to explore some of the things it can (and cannot) tell us about the unprecedented times we continue to experience as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We take conversations about health and social care as our focus to evaluate their potential to usefully inform policy-making and public health interventions. Our reports are designed to inform those tasked with communicating important messages about health and care in challenging circumstances.” Annemarie Naylor MBE, Director of Policy & Strategy
  • Communicating Public Health - Report 1 Method review and overview of key announcements
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