A new Pew Research Center computational analysis of data from March 2020 finds that in the early days of the pandemic in the United States, posts about the coronavirus that shared links to sources of information appeared in a wide variety of Facebook public spaces (defined here as public pages and groups), mainly ones where users were already discussing other topics. For example, of the public spaces that mentioned the virus in March 2020, about a quarter (24%) were personal interest and lifestyle spaces, while another one-in-five (19%) were entertainment or sports spaces.
To conduct this study, researchers used a set of coronavirus-related keywords (like “coronavirus,” “covid” and “covid-19”) to identify about 6.5 million public English-language posts that mentioned COVID-19 between March 1 and March 31, 2020, across more than 350,000 Facebook public spaces.
Researchers then mapped the overall volume of Facebook posts about COVID-19, finding that the posts tracked with real-world events and tended to dip each weekend. For example, during the first week of March, attention paid to the coronavirus outbreak within Facebook public spaces was minimal – about 36,000 posts per day. A noticeable spike in posting about COVID-19 occurred on Facebook during the second week of March, as several events heightened public awareness of the threat. As the outbreak continued, posting plateaued at an elevated level. About 280,000 posts were published on March 31, nearly eight times the number at the beginning of the month.
To get a sense of where on Facebook coronavirus-related posts drew the most attention, researchers focused the rest of their analysis on the most popular Facebook posts about COVID-19 that contained a link, and the public spaces where that content was posted. To do so, researchers calculated the number of interactions (defined as the total number of comments, shares and reactions a post received) for each coronavirus-related post that contained a link. They then determined the average interaction rate across all posts in each public space. Next, researchers examined the 3,000 Facebook public spaces with the highest average interaction rate of COVID-19 posts (that contained a link) to determine the public spaces’ subject and geographic orientation. The coronavirus-related posts containing a link in these popular public spaces amounted to 93,091 posts, and they linked to 4,860 unique websites. Researchers visited each unique website linked to determine what type of organization it was.
Among the key findings from this deep dive into popular COVID-19 Facebook posts and their links:
- About three-quarters (74%) of public Facebook posts mentioning COVID-19 linked to news organizations. Additionally, posts on the platform that linked to news organizations garnered 3,017 interactions on average, 29% more interactions than the next category (nonprofit and research organizations).
- TV and digital-native sites were the most frequently linked to types of news organizations. Roughly half of Facebook posts mentioning COVID-19 linked to television news sites (28%) or digital-native news sites (24%), while 15% of all posts linked to the online homes of print newspapers and magazines. Additionally, 21% of posts that linked to a news organization contained links to a local source, such a local newspaper or TV or radio station.
- Few of the public Facebook posts about COVID-19 linked to health care and science sites, including public health sites. Just 1% of all posts in this study linked to health care and science sites, including public health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the websites of doctors, hospitals and other medical entities. These posts also received the fewest interactions on average: 1,337, less than half the number linking to news organizations.
- A small portion of these Facebook public spaces are built around a specific local area in the U.S. While a majority of the Facebook public spaces (79%) included in this study didn’t have a clear geographic focus, nearly one-in-ten (7%) were associated with a specific city, state or other local area in the U.S. Another 14% of these spaces focused on areas in other countries.