What social media told us in the time of COVID-19: a scoping review

Social Media

What Social Media Told Us in the Time of COVID-19: A Scoping Review | The  Communication Initiative Network


With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has rapidly become a crucial communication tool for information generation, dissemination, and consumption. In this scoping review, we selected and examined peer-reviewed empirical studies relating to COVID-19 and social media during the first outbreak from November, 2019, to November, 2020. From an analysis of 81 studies, we identified five overarching public health themes concerning the role of online social media platforms and COVID-19. These themes focused on: surveying public attitudes, identifying infodemics, assessing mental health, detecting or predicting COVID-19 cases, analysing government responses to the pandemic, and evaluating quality of health information in prevention education videos. Furthermore, our Review emphasises the paucity of studies on the application of machine learning on data from COVID-19-related social media and a scarcity of studies documenting real-time surveillance that was developed with data from social media on COVID-19. For COVID-19, social media can have a crucial role in disseminating health information and tackling infodemics and misinformation.


Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and the resulting COVID-19, is a substantial international public health issue. As of Jan 18, 2021, an estimated 95 million people worldwide had been infected with the virus, with about 2 million deaths.


As a consequence of the pandemic, social media is becoming the platform of choice for public opinions, perceptions, and attitudes towards various events or public health policies regarding COVID-19.


Social media has become a pivotal communication tool for governments, organisations, and universities to disseminate crucial information to the public. Numerous studies have already used social media data to help to identify and detect outbreaks of infectious diseases and to interpret public attitudes, behaviours, and perceptions.





Social media, particularly Twitter, can be used to explore multiple facets of public health research. A systematic review identified six categories of Twitter use for health research, namely content analysis, surveillance, engagement, recruitment, as part of an intervention, and network analysis of Twitter users.


However, this review included only broader research terms, such as health, medicine, or disease, by use of Twitter data and did not focus on specific disease topics, such as COVID-19. Another article analysed tweets on COVID-19 and identified 12 topics that were categorised into four main themes: the origin, source, effects on individuals and countries, and methods of decreasing the spread of SARS-CoV-2.


In this study, data were not available for tweets that were related to COVID-19 before February, 2020, thereby missing the initial part of the epidemic, and the data for tweets were limited to between Feb 2 and March 15, 2020.

Social media can also be effectively used to communicate health information to the general public during a pandemic. Emerging infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, almost always result in increased usage and consumption of media of all forms by the general public for information.


Therefore, social media has a crucial role in people’s perception of disease exposure, resultant decision making, and risk behaviours.



As information on social media is generated by users, such information can be subjective or inaccurate, and frequently includes misinformation and conspiracy theories.


Hence, it is imperative that accurate and timely information is disseminated to the general public about emerging threats, such as SARS-CoV-2. A systematic review explored the major approaches that were used in published research on social media and emerging infectious diseases.


The review identified three major approaches: assessment of the public’s interest in, and responses to, emerging infectious diseases; examination of organisations’ use of social media in communicating emerging infectious diseases; and evaluation of the accuracy of medical information that is related to emerging infectious diseases on social media. However, this review did not focus on studies that used social media data to track and predict outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases.

Analysing and disseminating information from peer-reviewed, published research can guide policy makers and public health agencies to design interventions for accurate and timely knowledge translation to the general public. Therefore, keeping in view the limitations of existing research that we have previously mentioned, we did a scoping review with the aim of understanding the roles that social media has had since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. We investigated public attitudes and perceptions towards COVID-19 on social media, information about COVID-19 on social media, use of social media for prediction and detection of COVID-19, the effects of COVID-19 on mental health, and government responses to COVID-19 on social media. Our objective was to identify and analyse studies on social media that were related to COVID-19 and focused on five themes: infodemics, public attitudes, mental health, detection or prediction of COVID-19 cases, government responses to the pandemic, and quality of health information in videos.



Studies exploring the use of social media relating to COVID-19 were reviewed by use of the scoping review methods of Arksey and O’Malley


and Levac and colleagues.


We followed the five-step scoping review protocol and the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses extension for scoping reviews.

 Data Sources

Exploratory searches were done on COVID-19 Open Research Dataset Challenge and Google Scholar in April, 2020. These searches helped to define the Review scope, develop the research questions, and determine eligibility criteria. After such activity, MEDLINE and PubMed, Scopus, and PsycINFO were selected for this Review because they include peer-reviewed literature in the fields of medicine, behavioural sciences, psychology, health-care systems, and clinical sciences. Variations of the key search terms can be found in the panel. Since the start of the current pandemic, COVID-19 articles were reviewed and published at an unprecedently rapid rate, with numerous publications that were available ahead of print referred to as preprints or articles in press. In this Review, we consider peer-reviewed preprints to be equivalent to published peer-reviewed articles, and relevant articles were screened accordingly.

 Screening procedure

Mainly, the primary reviewer (S-FT) screened title and abstract for each article to decide whether an article met the inclusion criteria. If the criteria were confirmed, then the article was included; otherwise, it was excluded. Paragraphs in articles were assigned a code representing one of the five themes (eg, I for infodemic), then a code was assigned to the article on the basis of the majority of paragraph codes. Next, quotes were sorted under each code, applying Ose’s method.


Braun and Clark’s thematic analysis method was used and involved searching for the text that matched the identified predictors (ie, codes) from the quantitative analysis and discovering emergent codes that were relevant to either the study objective or identified in the relevant literature review.


Finally, we categorised the codes into main themes. These codes and themes were compared and clarified by S-FT, ZAB, and YY to draw conclusions around the main themes. S-FT is fluent in English and Mandarin. The secondary reviewer (ZAB) is fluent in English, and the tertiary reviewer and domain expert (YY and HC) are both fluent in English and Mandarin. Any discrepancies among reviewers were discussed with the research team to reach consensus.


With the application of appropriate search filters, a total of 2405 articles were retrieved from the identified databases: PubMed (1084 articles), Scopus (1021 articles), and PsycINFO (300 articles). Among these, 670 duplicates were excluded. Of the remaining 1735 articles, 1434 were deemed to be non-empirical, such as comments, editorial essays, letters, opinions, and reviews. These exclusions left 301 articles for a full-text review on the basis of the screening results of titles and abstracts. After the full-text review, 81 articles were included in this scoping review (figure 1).

Figure thumbnail gr1
The table summarises the 81 articles that were selected on COVID-19 and social media. All articles were written in English. Data from Twitter (45 articles) and Sina Weibo (16 articles) were undoubtedly the most frequently studied. To categorise these chosen articles, we adopted a novel framework called Social Media and Public Health Epidemic and Response (SPHERE) and developed a modified version of SPHERE framework to organise the themes for our scoping review (figure 2).


Themes were identified through reviewers’ consensus based on our modified SPHERE framework. We identified six themes: infodemics, public attitudes, mental health, detecting or predicting COVID-19 cases, government responses, and quality of health information in prevention education videos.