Measuring the Outreach Efforts of Public Health Authorities and the Public Response on Facebook During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Early 2020: Cross-Country Comparison

J Med Internet Res. 2020 May 19;22(5):e19334. doi: 10.2196/19334.


Background: The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic presents one of the most challenging global crises at the dawn of a new decade. Public health authorities (PHAs) are increasingly adopting the use of social media such as Facebook to rapidly communicate and disseminate pandemic response measures to the public. Understanding of communication strategies across different PHAs and examining the public response on the social media landscapes can help improve practices for disseminating information to the public.

Objective: This study aims to examine COVID-19-related outreach efforts of PHAs in Singapore, the United States, and England, and the corresponding public response to these outreach efforts on Facebook.

Methods: Posts and comments from the Facebook pages of the Ministry of Health (MOH) in Singapore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, and Public Health England (PHE) in England were extracted from January 1, 2019, to March 18, 2020. Posts published before January 1, 2020, were categorized as pre-COVID-19, while the remaining posts were categorized as peri-COVID-19 posts. COVID-19-related posts were identified and classified into themes. Metrics used for measuring outreach and engagement were frequency, mean posts per day (PPD), mean reactions per post, mean shares per post, and mean comments per post. Responses to the COVID-19 posts were measured using frequency, mean sentiment polarity, positive to negative sentiments ratio (PNSR), and positive to negative emotions ratio (PNER). Toxicity in comments were identified and analyzed using frequency, mean likes per toxic comment, and mean replies per toxic comment. Trend analysis was performed to examine how the metrics varied with key events such as when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

Results: The MOH published more COVID-19 posts (n=271; mean PPD 5.0) compared to the CDC (n=94; mean PPD 2.2) and PHE (n=45; mean PPD 1.4). The mean number of comments per COVID-19 post was highest for the CDC (mean CPP 255.3) compared to the MOH (mean CPP 15.6) and PHE (mean CPP 12.5). Six major themes were identified, with posts about prevention and safety measures and situation updates being prevalent across the three PHAs. The themes of the MOH's posts were diverse, while the CDC and PHE posts focused on a few themes. Overall, response sentiments for the MOH posts (PNSR 0.94) were more favorable compared to response sentiments for the CDC (PNSR 0.57) and PHE (PNSR 0.55) posts. Toxic comments were rare (0.01%) across all PHAs.

Conclusions: PHAs' extent of Facebook use for outreach purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic varied among the three PHAs, highlighting the strategies and approaches that other PHAs can potentially adopt. Our study showed that social media analysis was capable of providing insights about the communication strategies of PHAs during disease outbreaks.

Keywords: COVID-19; emotion analysis; infectious disease; outbreak; public engagement; public health; public health authorities; sentiment analysis; social media; virus.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus*
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology*
  • Coronavirus Infections / prevention & control
  • England / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination*
  • Pandemics / prevention & control*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / prevention & control
  • Public Health*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Singapore / epidemiology
  • Social Media*
  • United States / epidemiology