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Rural social-media users are expressing support for police-violence protesters, but many worry that the demonstrations will contribute to a second wave of Covid-19 infections.
That’s a key finding in the most recent study of rural social media about the pandemic. The study includes rural parts of six battleground states and is commissioned by One Country, a 501(c)4 nonprofit led by Democrats that focuses on rural voters. Impact Social, a firm that specializes in social media analysis, is conducting the research.
Although the study focuses on social-media comments about the pandemic, the Covid-19 online conversation is adapting to include the protests that erupted after the May 25 killing of George Floyd.
“People express concern about how civil unrest will spark an increase of the spread of Covid-19,” write the authors the report. “They are not without sympathy for the Black Lives Matter cause but are worried about its impact on public health.”
The most recent report covers May 31 to June 6. The study began in mid-March and analyzes publicly posted social media originating in rural parts of Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. (There’s more on methodology below.)
Criticism of President Donald Trump over Covid-19 has grown to include comments about his response to demonstrations against police-violence. “Clearly Trump’s handling of the Black Lives Matter protests has done little to appease those who feel he is directly responsible for the Covid-19 crisis,” the report states.
The study categorizes rural social-media posts into three groups:
- Impact, which focuses on the consequences of Covid-19 on individuals and communities.
- Citizen comments, which include the information people are sharing on how they are coping with the pandemic. This category also includes individual expressions of sympathy, support, and humor.
- Political, where social-media users discuss the political ramifications of the pandemic.
Half of all the political comments in the most recent report criticize Trump for how he has handled Covid-19. This level of criticism has been relatively stable for the past six weeks after a slight improvement for Trump in early May.
Trump supporters have also been active. “The right has fought back, defending Trump and accusing Democrats of resorting to desperate measures in their attempt to win the presidency,” according to the study.
Rural social-media users also discussed the reopening of the U.S economy.
“People’s attention is now focusing on their jobs, businesses, general finances, and the economy,” the report states. “This is the first time in the last 11 weeks that detailed discussions have taken place, which perhaps hints toward a shift in priorities for rural people,”
Part of the discussion over work includes worries that employers are using the pandemic as an excuse to cut jobs and increase workloads. Employees express fear over having to choose between their jobs and their health.
Other findings include the following:
- “The protests have turbo-charged conspiracy theories.” The right accuses the left of manufacturing the anti-police-violence protests to erode support for Trump. Some on the left say the protests have been prompted by the right to distract from Trump’s handling of Covid-19.
- Rural people are also discussing the more optimistic topic of getting back to old lifestyles after the pandemic. “They speak of drinking in bars, shaving beards, going on a date, seeing/hugging their parents, etc.”
- As in previous weeks, social-media users discuss the effectiveness of face masks and hydroxychloroquine.
- Some rural people fear the second wave of Covid-19 will be more deadly than the first, especially since the protests have brought large numbers of people together and broken rules of social distancing.
- “With the coronavirus no longer leading the news and states beginning to ease restrictions, some declare that the ‘corona is now over.’” But the people who espouse this point of view are also the ones who said Covid-19 was a hoax cooked up by the left in the first place.
How the Study Was Conducted
The study’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 Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
The researchers filter the posts to “focus solely on the views of local citizens,” according to the report. The researchers say their methodology identifies original posts and removes reposts and posts generated by bots.
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.
This edition of the study identified 49,000 original posts and 20,000 unique users. That’s down from the previous week, when there were 60,000 posts by 24,000 unique users.
Scholars caution that studies of social media cannot be used like randomized public opinion polls, which attempt to predict voting behavior.