Synthesis produced by the Fondation Descartes of the following research paper:
S. Majó et al. « Volume and Patterns of Toxicity in Social Media Conversations during the COVID-19 Pandemic ». (July 2020). Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
The authors of this Reuters Institute report analyzed the character and tone of social media conversations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. More specifically, they sought to determine what proportion of twitter posts mentioning the WHO could be described as “toxic”. In this article, a “toxic” message is defined as one that is “rude, disrespectful or unreasonable”. The authors justify the relevance of addressing this aspect of social media conversations by recalling that one of the necessary foundations of a healthy democracy is the presence of respectful debates based on rational argumentation. A high proportion of uncivil and “unreasonable" messages could thus be a sign of a weakening democracy.
To conduct their analyses, the authors examined 222,774 tweets mentioning the WHO. These tweets were published by Twitter users worldwide between January 20 and April 23, 2020. The results of their report show that 21% of the Twitter posts observed over this time period can be considered toxic. If we only consider the messages tweeted after March 25, the date by which many European countries decided to confine their populations, the proportion of toxic messages increases to 25%.
Secondly, the authors of this report sought to determine what contextual elements could explain the fluctuations in the average level of toxicity of the messages observed over the entire time period in question. It appears that there is a clear correlation between the highest peaks of toxicity and the publishing of official WHO statements at the start of the pandemic. Furthermore, the increase in the proportion of toxic tweets is also chronologically related to the statements of certain political leaders known for being critical of the WHO. Finally, it is interesting to note that the more a message uses terminology associated with the conspiratorial lexicon, the more likely it is to be uncivil.
The toxicity of tweets therefore varies according to certain keywords present in the publications. The authors of this report conclude that there exists a strong link between the toxicity of the social media conversations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the worsening of the public health situation after March 26, 2020, the intensification of criticisms by political leaders, and the media treatment of the role played by the WHO in the management of the pandemic.