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More than half of the political comments posted publicly on social media in rural parts of six swing states last week criticized President Donald Trump for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But a vocal minority of rural social-media users are pushing back against anti-Trump sentiment by questioning whether the Covid-19 death rate is as high as authorities say.
The findings are part of the most recent analysis of publicly posted social media originating in rural parts of Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania – swing states that could decide the 2020 presidential election. The report is commissioned by One Country, a 501(c)4 nonprofit led by Democrats that focuses on rural voters.
“President Trump comes under increasing attack from rural people who feel he is not in control of events,” write the authors of the report, Impact Social. “His capricious approach to the crisis makes him vulnerable to criticism as fatalities continue to rise.”
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But another stream of social-media commentary questions whether Covid-19 is causing those fatalities.
“A major fight is underway about the real Covid-19 death rate, with the political right shouting that the figures have been grossly inflated,” the report says. Others say the figures are made up or that the pandemic is a hoax created by Democrats.
On the other side of the argument, some wonder whether the fatality rate is actually much higher than reported because of deaths not properly attributed to Covid-19 complications.
Debate over the veracity of death figures – pro and con – accounted for about a fifth of general peer-to-peer commentary among rural social-media users in the six states. A similar proportion of comments about the fatality rates were part of the discussion users had about how the coronavirus is affecting their daily lives.
In the comments that focused on the politics of the pandemic, 51% were anti-Trump, an increase of 15 points from the previous week’s study. Pro-Trump sentiment dropped from 10% of the political comments to 5%.
Scholars caution that analysis of social media cannot be a substitute for scientific public opinion polling. But social media can shift the political debate and get voters more involved in the election, said Heidi Heitkamp, the former U.S. senator from North Dakota who co-founded One Country.
“The single most important thing that I can say you should take from this [study] is that when you get your rural Democrat base activated, it drives the narrative,” Heitkamp said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “And it will, in fact, result in greater turnout.”
Heitkamp said the goal of One Country is not to win rural America outright but to win back voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 and then voted for Trump in 2016.
In the six swing states that are part of the social-media study, Trump outperformed Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by more than 30 points. Obama lost those same counties by only 18 points in 2012 and 12 points in 2008.
She said this election cycle looks much better for Democrats. “The gap is narrowing” in rural areas for Democratic candidates, Heitkamp said. “And as the gap narrows, that creates more and more opportunities for re-election of these first-time swing-district Democrats” who took office in 2018, she said.
One Country began studying rural swing-state social media in mid-March. They did a similar study during the impeachment process in 2019.
Social-media criticism of Trump does not necessarily mean a shift in the base of his support. But analysts said they also noted a group of anti-Trump comments coming from a group that is less partisan. “They accuse him of preferring to pass the buck or say something outlandish than look for solutions,” the report says.
Some of the other highlights of this week’s analysis are the following:
- There’s a great deal of confusion about what is happening with the pandemic and how the public should respond. “With a rise in information, new rules, and regulations, the conversation is becoming increasingly confused as the weeks go by.
- The announcement that some White House staff are infected with the coronavirus caused alarm. “It has made the virus more real for some people who had previously felt immune or detached from the crisis.”
- The economy is a big concern, “influenced by media reports of America’s worst-ever recession, which are being widely shared.”
- More people are discussing how and whether they will get back to work. “The overall conversation is tinged with a sense of trepidations as to what their world will look like by the time they return.”
- Conspiracy theories constituted 12% of the general citizen commentary, with both sides of the debate commenting on whether China developed the virus in a lab, an idea related by Trump and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
How the Study Was Conducted
The study was conducted for One Country by Impact Social. 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 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.
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.