YY Ahn, an associate professor of informatics and computing at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, is part of a group of researchers studying how the public reacted to the COVID-19 outbreak through the use of internet search data.
In the paper, “Evidence from internet search data shows information seeking responses to news of local COVID-19 cases,” published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that searches for “coronavirus” increased by 36 percent on the day immediately following the first case announcement, but the impact didn’t last long. Internet searches for the term reverted to the baseline in less than two weeks.
“Because we don’t have any cure or vaccination, our only weapons are mostly physical and social interventions, such as lockdown, personal hygiene, or physical distancing,” Ahn said. “That means how people obtain correct information and follow scientifically informed guidelines are particularly important. Our results indicate that the news of local cases increase the information-seeking behavior and collective attention, but it is very short-lived.”
Beyond the search term “coronavirus,” the paper measured increased searches for “coronavirus symptoms” and “hand sanitizer,” but searches for information regarding community-level policies, such as quarantine, school closures, or testing, and personal health strategies were not triggered by the first reports.
“Given that our information sources are highly fragmented with partisan biases, our results suggest that the information about pandemic may be consumed mostly through passive means such as social media, TV, etc.,” Ahn said. “I think our study calls for more studies into how people acquire information about the disease and pandemic, particularly with respect to ‘infodemic’—the spreading of misinformation.”
The study was led by Assistant Professor Ana Bento from the IU School of Public Health and Herman B Wells Endowed Professor Kosali Simon from the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Ahn joined the team based on his previous work with social media and collective attention data.
“This collaborative effort to study how people approached the news about the COVID-19 outbreak provides critical insights into reactions in impending crisis situations,” said Kay Connelly, the associate dean for research at the Luddy School. “Our faculty are always looking for opportunities to collaborate with colleagues from different disciplines, and this paper is the perfect example of how the expertise in the Luddy School plays an important role in pushing research forward.”