How Epidemic Psychology Works on Social Media: Evolution of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic

by   Luca Maria Aiello, et al.

Disruptions resulting from an epidemic might often appear to amount to chaos but, in reality, can be understood in a systematic way through the lens of "epidemic psychology". According to the father of this research field, Philip Strong, not only is the epidemic biological; there is also the potential for three social epidemics: of fear, moralization, and action. This work is the first study to empirically test Strong's model at scale. It does so by studying the use of language on 39M social media posts in US about the COVID-19 pandemic, which is the first pandemic to spread this quickly not only on a global scale but also online. We identified three distinct phases, which parallel Kuebler-Ross's stages of grief. Each of them is characterized by different regimes of the three social epidemics: in the refusal phase, people refused to accept reality despite the increasing numbers of deaths in other countries; in the suspended reality phase (started after the announcement of the first death in the country), people's fear translated into anger about the looming feeling that things were about to change; finally, in the acceptance phase (started after the authorities imposed physical-distancing measures), people found a "new normal" for their daily activities. Our real-time operationalization of Strong's model makes it possible to embed epidemic psychology in any real-time model (e.g., epidemiological and mobility models).


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