As COVID-19 Emerged in U.S., Facebook Posts About It Appeared in a Wide Range of Public Pages, Groups
About three-quarters (74%) of public posts about COVID-19 linked to news organizations, while just 1% linked to health and science sites
The COVID-19 outbreak has driven record traffic to news sites as most Americans have sought out information about the virus and its implications for society. Many have turned to social media to follow the developments – and even before the outbreak, about half of all U.S. adults said they get news from Facebook.
But where on Facebook are people finding discussions of COVID-19, what sources are users linking to, and how much are people engaging with what they find? A new Pew Research Center analysis finds that in the early days of the outbreak in the United States, coronavirus-related posts that shared links to sources of information appeared in a wide variety of public Facebook spaces (defined in this report as public pages and groups) – mainly spaces where users were already discussing other topics. For instance, about a quarter (24%) of the public spaces studied that mentioned the virus in March 2020 were personal interest and lifestyle spaces, while another one-in-five (19%) were entertainment or sports. The remainder ranged from spaces typically focused on government and politics to religion, business and humor, reflecting the outbreak’s impact in many different contexts.
Still, many of these posts shared a striking similarity, overwhelmingly linking to one source type: news organizations. Roughly three-quarters (74%) of the coronavirus-related posts linked to news organizations’ websites, while just 1% linked directly to health care or science websites. The reliance on the news media for information also comes through in the reaction these posts received: an average of about 3,000 interactions (shares, comments, likes and other reactions) per post on those that linked to news organizations, higher than for posts linking to any other kind of source type.
The study identified about 6.5 million total English-language posts that mentioned COVID-19 in more than 350,000 public Facebook pages and groups (collectively referred to as public spaces) between March 1 and March 31, 2020.
As the outbreak turned into a pandemic, the volume of Facebook posts was responsive to world events, with a tendency to dip each weekend. During the first week of March, attention paid to the coronavirus outbreak within public Facebook spaces was minimal – about 36,000 posts per day. A noticeable spike in posting activity occurred during the second week of March, as several events heightened public awareness of the threat: The World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic, President Donald Trump announced a suspension of travel from Europe, the NBA suspended its season, and Tom Hanks announced he and his wife had tested positive for coronavirus. As the outbreak continued, posting about it plateaued. About 280,000 coronavirus-related posts were published on March 31, nearly eight times the number at the beginning of the month. And throughout the month, many posts about COVID-19 included a link – about six-in-ten (58%).
Because this study is focused on understanding the information sources that are being shared on Facebook, researchers then drilled down to posts that included links. Looking more closely at the public spaces where Facebook users posted about the coronavirus – and included links – also enabled researchers to focus on a manageable amount of data and paint a more nuanced picture of where the largest numbers of people were getting information.
Overall, the study examined 3,000 public spaces, based on the average number of interactions each coronavirus-related post with a link received. In total, across these 3,000 public spaces, 93,091 posts were published, linking to 4,860 unique websites. These public spaces were examined for their subject and geographic orientation, and researchers visited each site to determine what type of organization it was (e.g., news organization, government agency or public health site).
Some of the major findings from this analysis include:
- Facebook posts about COVID-19 occurred across public spaces with a wide spectrum of subject orientations. About a quarter (24%) of these public spaces were oriented around personal interest and lifestyle topics, and another 19% were dedicated to entertainment and sports. The other types of public spaces were oriented around a range of topics: government and politics (11%), religion (9%), businesses and public figures (8%), and general news (8%). The data shows the pervasiveness of COVID-19, even in spaces on Facebook that were seemingly unrelated to health, news or politics, based on the spaces’ titles and descriptions.
- Most COVID-19 Facebook posts in these public spaces linked to news organizations, and those posts garnered relatively high levels of interactions. An overwhelming majority (74%) of public Facebook posts about the coronavirus outbreak linked to news organizations’ websites. Additionally, posts that linked to news organizations received more interactions than posts linking to any other type of site: 3,017 average interactions, 29% higher than the next highest category (nonprofit and research organizations).
- TV and digital-native sites were the most frequently linked to types of news organizations. Roughly half of these COVID-19 Facebook posts linked to television news sites (28%) or digital-native news sites (24%), while another 15% of all posts linked to the online homes of print newspapers and magazines. And about one-in-five of these posts linked to local sources: 21% of those posts linking to news organizations shared local news sites, such as local TV, radio or newspapers.
- Few COVID-19 Facebook posts linked to health care and science sites, including public health sites. Despite the medical nature of the pandemic, just 1% of the posts examined in this study linked to health care and science sites, including public health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the websites of doctors, hospitals and other medical entities. Posts linking to these sites also received the fewest interactions: 1,337, on average, less than half of those linking to news organizations. More specifically, posts to public health sources like the CDC, World Health Organization, and state and local health agencies that are directing the response to the pandemic or providing official coronavirus-related resources received even fewer interactions: an average of 756 per post.
- A small portion of these public Facebook spaces were built around a specific local area in the U.S. While a majority of the public Facebook spaces included in this study didn’t have a clear geographic focus (79%), 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.