Published on 04 Mar 2021

The COVID-19 emotional rollercoaster

Tracking over 20 million coronavirus-related tweets in English from January to April 2020, an NTU-led research team unravelled the emotional journey—ranging from fear and anger to gratitude—of people from all over the world.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, many people felt fear due to uncertainties surrounding the novel coronavirus. These feelings of fear quickly gave way to sentiments of anger. Xenophobia was a common theme among anger-related tweets, which progressively increased and peaked on 12 March 2020—a day after the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. The anger then evolved to reflect feelings arising from isolation and social seclusion, accompanied by expressions of joy relating to national pride, gratitude, and community spirit.

This evolution of public emotions is the outcome of a scientific analysis of over 20 million coronavirus-related tweets in English. Collected from late January to early April 2020 at the Institute of High Performance Computing in Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) using Twitter’s standard search application interface programme, the tweets came from over seven million unique users in more than 170 countries.

“The rapid evolution of global COVID-19 sentiments within a short period of time points to a need to address increasingly volatile emotions through strategic communication by government and health authorities,” said Prof May O Lwin of NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, who led the international team of researchers.

“The observed sentiments also call for responsible behaviour by netizens to stop breeding mistrust in the handling of the disease and rising beliefs in online falsehoods that could hinder efforts to control the disease,” she added.

Preliminary findings of follow-up studies into country-specific trends in public emotions point to a moderate balance of positive sentiments relating to resilience and civic pride in Singapore during the weeks from early April to mid-June, while strong negative emotions appeared to predominate social media posts in other countries.

The study “Global sentiments surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic on Twitter: Analysis of Twitter trends” was published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance (2020), DOI: 10.2196/19447.

The article appeared first in NTU's research & innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #18February 2021).