US celebrity Twitter posts—especially those from politicians and news anchors—likely influenced the increasingly negative US public attitudes toward efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published this week in BMJ Health & Care Informatics.
A team led by University of Tennessee researchers analyzed the sentiments of more than 45,000 COVID-related tweets from 34,000 unique users from January to March 2022 that mentioned a well-known vaccine skeptic. The tweets garnered more than 16.3 million likes, with the most popular one earning 70,000.
The skeptics included podcaster Joe Rogan, TV host Tucker Carlson, political commentator Candace Owens, broadcaster Phil Valentine, football player Aaron Rodgers, tennis player Novak Djokovic, musicians Nicki Minaj and Eric Clapton, and politicians Rand Paul, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ron DeSantis.
Messages downplayed COVID risks
While sentiments varied slightly, the researchers said the overall tone was negative and polarizing. News anchors had a wide sphere of influence, with more than 14,000 likes among them.
So, too, did politicians. "The spread, reaction and engagement by the public to posts made by politicians online was indicative of a strong level of influence, suggesting politicians play key roles in ensuring population health and should be committed to promoting health-protective behaviours rather than sensational falsehoods," the authors wrote.
Our findings suggest that polarised messages from societal elites may downplay these risks, unduly contributing to an increase in the spread of COVID-19.
Further research, they added, could help public health officials and policymakers combat misinformation about COVID-19 and future outbreaks through targeted social media messaging.
"The risk of severe negative health outcomes increases with failure to comply with health-protective behaviour recommendations set forth by public health officials, such as vaccination, and our findings suggest that polarised messages from societal elites may downplay these risks, unduly contributing to an increase in the spread of COVID-19," the authors wrote.