3 stages of pandemic emotions: Researchers comb through tweets to identify how attitudes spread online 

Throughout the pandemic, Americans have cycled through three main emotions in response to COVID-19: refusal, anger and acceptance. 

A group of researchers from Nokia Bell Labs in Cambridge, U.K.; IT University in Copenhagen, Denmark; and Centre for Urban Science and Progress at King's College London, recently published a paper in Nature journal exploring "epidemic psychology" in relation to COVID-19. 

The term epidemic psychology, coined by Phillip Strong in 1990 during the AIDS pandemic, details the concurrent psychosocial epidemics of fear, panic, suspicion and stigma that emerged during the Black Plague and AIDS crisis, according to a July 28 Fast Company report. During these times, a collective distrust and uncertainty spread among the public just as the diseases did, but through communication. 

"The human possession of language means that the fear of such disease can be rapidly, even instantly transmitted (as through television) across millions of people and from one society to another," Mr. Strong wrote. 

For the July 2021 paper, the researchers tested Mr. Strong's model by analyzing 122 million tweets from January through December 2020, finding that Americans were going through a string of emotions that closely resembled those originally identified by Mr. Strong. The emotions were "collective disorientation," or inability to determine the importance of a new disease; fear and paranoia that turns everything into a potential vector of the disease; and taking action or choosing how to respond to the disease, which often involves moralizing of certain groups. 

The researchers created a list of keywords representing the phrases identified by Mr. Strong and then mapped the words to four academic vocabularies for understanding emotions, psychological states and prosocial behavior. 

They found that three specific phases emerged continuously throughout the time period: refusal, anger and acceptance. When it first began, people refused to believe the pandemic was real. Then people became angry when the first Americans died from the virus and restrictions were put in place. As time went on, anger slowly faded into acceptance but still recurred and spiked with each wave of cases. 

The researchers cited various limitations of the study, including that people on Twitter represent a specific subset of Americans, who, on average, are younger, liberal and highly educated. The group also cited room for bias and that bots or fake accounts could have influenced results of the analysis. However, they concluded that the study's sample size was relevant.


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