Rural Americans posting on social media in six swing states are getting through the coronavirus pandemic with humor, clear-headedness and, surprisingly, by dissing Donald Trump, according to a rural-focused Democratic organization.
Those findings are part of a new study released this week by One Country, a political organization that says it is trying to get Democrats to do a better job reaching rural voters. The organization is headed by former Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
The study looks at public social media posts related to Covid-19 to identify reactions of rural residents as they cope with the pandemic. The social-media messages are from individuals who posted while they were in rural counties in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the report says. The six states are part of the battleground for the 2020 presidential election.
Of posts dealing with political aspects of the pandemic, the study found that:
- 46% criticized President Trump, while 4% supported him.
- 9% criticized the Republican Party, while 7% criticized the Democratic Party.
- 12% focused on voter suppression, during a week when Wisconsin voters went to the polls after the Democratic Party tried to delay the primary because of the coronavirus threat.
- 5% related to bias in how the media has covered Covid-19.
Numbers like these wouldn’t raise eyebrows if they came from a national sample of social-media posts. The most recent Five Thirty Eight combined approval rating shows that only 44% of adults approve of Trump’s performance in the White House.
But the posts in the study originated in rural counties of six swing states. And in those same counties in 2016, Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by more than 25 points.
How the Study Was Conducted
The study was conducted for One Country by Impact Social. The firm specializes in the relatively new field of social-media analysis. Impact Social’s website says it predicted Trump’s 2016 electoral victory by following changing sentiments among social-media users in Florida over a six-week period before the election.
The firm’s methodology combines big data and algorithms with randomized sampling and human analysis. The study uses publicly available social-media posts from blogs and big platforms like Facebook and Twitter that are geocoded to the rural counties in the six swing states. The researchers filter the posts to “focus solely on the views of local citizens,” according to the report.
From this universe of posts, the researchers pull a randomized sample. In the final stage, humans read the sample of social-media posts and categorize them based on their content.
The researchers’ analysis says rural social-media users in the targeted states have increased levels of anger because they believe Trump has tried to blame others for mismanagement of the crisis.
“Trump continues to face heavy criticism for his handling of the pandemic,” the report says. “There is no doubt in these people’s minds that Trump’s inaction has led to many needless deaths.”
The researchers also find that people are confused about what constitutes appropriate physical distancing and how the virus can be transmitted. They are sharing information about the pandemic with other residents, offering sympathy and support, and beginning to worry about emotional health because of isolation.
“The conversation clearly shows that rural Americans know they are not immune from the health or economic threats of Covid-19,” said One Country Project co-founder Heitkamp in a statement provided to the Daily Yonder. “Even online, community continues to be a defining strength of rural areas, with people sharing information, sharing their fears, and offering one another reassurance.”
Rural residents are not happy with Trump, she said.
“Just like they know who is there for them – their neighbors and local leaders – they also know that President Trump has failed them.”
Republican strategist William Greener said that President Trump’s support in rural America remains “very, very strong,” both in battleground states and the nation overall. He said analysis of social-media posts might be useful for revealing the range of ideas being expressed. He was far less certain that it could be used to quantify political opinion.
Change in Messages about Trump
Researchers began tracking rural social-media posts for One Country in mid-March. At that time the six states in the study had a combined total of 838 cases of novel coronavirus infection. Anti-Trump posts at that point constituted 36% of the political posts in rural parts of those states, the study says.
Two weeks later, during the most recent sampling period for the study, the six states had a combined total of approximately 42,000 cases. During that period, anti-Trump posts climbed to 46% of the political conversation.
Greener said using analysis of social media to quantify political support is risky. “If what you really wanted to know was what the level of support is for President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, wouldn’t it be a lot simpler and easier to put a five-question [survey] instrument together and draw a sample” and conduct a traditional public opinion poll?
Humor and Specificity
Rural social-media users are using humor to help them get through the crisis. The number of humorous posts discussing the impact of the pandemic rose from 7% the week of March 21 to 25% the week of April 13.
“Plenty of people are resorting to humor to get through the tough times,” the report says. “While some citizens are clearly being flippant, the majority are just trying to cheer themselves up and lift the spirits of others.”
As the number of Covid-19 cases increases, rural Americans have shifted from general comments about the pandemic to “increasing levels of detail,” the report says. “Now citizens speak about the impact on nursing homes and grocery store workers, for example, or what it means for a particular industry such as meat packing. … Heartbreaking conversations appear online about the loss of jobs and broken businesses.”
The online conversation also includes conspiracy theories. “Conspiracy and rumors continue to circulate throughout social media such as the ‘fact’ that Covid-19 was man-made by the Chinese. In addition, there appears to be growing anger that China – having allegedly started the virus – is now making money off the crisis.”
There is also a discussion that the lockdowns enacted to prevent the spread of the virus are not necessary. “A small but vocal minority opposes any lockdown,” the report says. “These people feel that the authorities have overreacted, and that the pain of shutting down the economy will cause more death and suffering than Covid-19.”
The Daily Yonder will publish future installments of the weekly study.