Social media polarization and mobilization affect infection numbers


Measures to contain the Corona pandemic are the subject of a politically charged debate and tend to polarize segments of the population. Those who support the measures motivate their acquaintances to follow the rules, while those who oppose it are calling for resistance on social media. But how exactly do politicization and social mobilization affect the incidence of infection? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development examined this question using the United States as an example. Their results were published in Applied network science.

Limit crowds, keep a safe distance, and wear masks. Such non-pharmaceutical interventions, which should be implemented by all if possible in order to contain the incidence of infection, have played a central role since the onset of the Corona pandemic. These measures were disseminated not only through traditional media such as newspapers, radio and television, but also to a large extent on social networks. We can see that government calls, recommendations and regulations are not only greeted with approval and understanding, but also spur politically charged discussions, polarization, conspiratorial narratives and mobilization against the measures – often mixed with opinions. personal.

But what does the rejection of Corona measures depend on? And is there a connection between the politicization of Corona topics in social media and the development of infection numbers? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development studied this using an engagement model based on the example of Facebook in the United States. The subject of the study was a hypothetical political campaign in which the Democratic Party recommends non-pharmaceutical measures to combat the spread of the Corona virus.

The results of the model’s calculations show that the hypothetical Democratic campaign would have spread to Democratic states three times faster than to Republican states. Regardless of the direction, this political polarization makes it difficult to reach most segments of the population equally. “As a result, the acceptance and subsequent release of the measurements is politically dependent on the sender and recipient,” says Inho Hong, lead author of the study and Fellow at the Center for Humans and Machines from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

The researchers then looked at the relationship between social mobilization and the actual spread of COVID-19 cases in the United States. They found that, on the one hand, advocacy can have a positive effect on the pandemic response when large numbers of people come together online to support regulations by disseminating them early and early. On the other hand, there are indications that the political accusation and the resulting actions may have exacerbated the incidence of the infection in certain geographic areas. For example, infection rates rose from mid-April 2020 after Republicans protested against the first lockdown and did not always comply with specified hygiene rules. This means that political regulations such as lockdowns can have the opposite effect after being reinterpreted by politically polarized opponents – and even make matters worse.

The researchers used a mobilization model to simulate social mobilization processes. Data on this came from two sources: the Facebook Social Connectedness Index, a measure that calculates social connections between people in different regions, and demographic information and datasets from the New York Times election protocols. . Based on this data, the researchers calculated how the Democratic campaign would have spread through Facebook and whether it would have led to political actions such as protests.

In previous studies, researchers have used this model of mobilization to examine how political actions have formed and spread on social media in the United States. “The model allowed us to show a link between the social divide in the United States, the dissemination of information via Facebook and the evolution of the incidence of infections,” says Alex Rutherford, principal investigator and principal investigator at the Center for Humans. and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and co-author of the study.

The results of the study show that political imputation of pandemic control measures can have a counterproductive effect and even fuel the incidence of infection. “On social media, the mask was quickly reinterpreted as a political statement and used to polarize the population. Governments should therefore ask themselves to whom and through which channels they disseminate information and whether they want to target the mobilization, ”says Manuel Cebrian, leader. of the Digital Mobilization Research Group at the Center for Humans and Machines of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and co-author of the study.

The study focused on the political attitudes of American citizens. Other potentially decisive social factors such as occupation, income, gender and origin should be examined in further studies. These could provide information for planning communication of future measures – for example, government immunization strategies.


Max Planck Institute for Human Development

The Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin was founded in 1963. It is an interdisciplinary research institution dedicated to the study of human development and education. The Institute belongs to the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, one of the leading fundamental research organizations in Europe.

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