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Public Health Communication and Engagement on Social Media during the COVID-19 Pandemic


Social media provides governments the opportunity to directly communicate with their constituents. During a pandemic, reaching as many citizens as possible with health messaging is critical to reducing the spread of the disease. This study evaluates efforts to spread healthcare information by Canadian local, provincial, and federal governments during the first five months of the COVID-19 pandemic. We collect all health-related communications coming from government accounts on Facebook and Twitter and analyze the data using a nested mixed method approach. We first identify quantifiable features linked with citizen engagement, before subsequently performing content analysis on outlier posts. We make two critical contributions to existing knowledge about government communication, particularly during public health crises. We identify cross-platform variations in strategy effectiveness and draw attention to specific, evidence-based practices that can increase engagement with government health information.
Read preprint here.



All in this together: deservingness of government aid during the COVID-19 pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented pressure on governments to engage in widespread cash transfers directly to citizens to help mitigate economic losses. These programs are major redistribution efforts aimed at a variety of sub-groups within society (the unemployed, those with children, those with pre-existing health conditions, etc.) and there has been remarkably little resistance to these government outlays. We employ a novel and pre-registered paired vignette experiment to assess support for government aid during the pandemic in a large, nationally representative sample. We evaluate whether the “normal” deservingness hierarchy and considerations of social affinity or material self-interest continue to drive preferences of Canadians regarding redistribution. We find only small deservingness considerations and little evidence that redistribution preferences are informed by similarity considerations. Instead, we find broad, generous, and non-discriminatory support for direct cash transfers during this period of crisis.
Read preprint here.

Prospective Economic Costs Undermine Expectations of Social Distancing

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed an extraordinary burden on governments and citizens alike. In order to contain the spread of the pandemic and limit its effect on health care systems, citizens have been asked to forego social and economic activity to protect others at a tremendous cost to themselves. We argue that participation in social distancing can be seen as contributions to a public good, and thus willingness to participate will be influenced by the marginal costs and benefits of those contributions and expectations that other citizens will participate. We test our theory using three survey experiments conducted on nationally representative samples of citizens. We find that respondents have lower expectations of social distancing compliance by other citizens and by themselves in response to information related to the high prospective economic costs of social distancing. We show that the effect of prospective economic costs on self-expectations of social distancing compliance is strongest among younger respondents and those outside of dense-urban areas – two groups who face higher costs relative to benefits of social distancing. We also find evidence of a causal link between respondents’ expectations of social distancing compliance by other citizens and their self-expectations of compliance with these guidelines. This suggests that some of the effect of prospective economic cost on self-expectations may be mediated by changes in expectations of other citizens’ behaviour.
Read preprint here.

Anti-intellectualism and Information Preferences during the COVID-19 Pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic necessitates widespread voluntary and sustained public compliance with expert-guided public health directives, like social or physical distancing. Understanding which citizens seek out and engage with expert messages regarding COVID-19 is thus of central importance. Anti-intellectualism – the generalized distrust of experts and intellectuals – is likely to be a dominant factor. This note presents the results of two survey experiments from large nationally representative samples of Canadians (N~2,500) that illustrate citizen preference for 1) COVID-19 news, which they view as more important; and 2) COVID-19 information from experts, which they view as more credible. These information-seeking preferences and evaluations dissipate among those with high levels of anti-intellectual sentiment. Associations between anti-intellectualism and COVID-19 risk perceptions and social distancing compliance may, at least in part, be explained by divergence in information preferences.
Read preprint here






The causes and consequences of COVID-19 misperceptions: Understanding the role of news and social media


We investigate the relationship between media consumption, misinformation, and important attitudes and behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. We find that comparatively more misinformation circulates on social media platforms, while traditional news media tend to reinforce public health recommendations like social distancing. We find that exposure to social media is associated with misperceptions regarding basic facts about COVID-19 while the inverse is true for news media. These misperceptions are in turn associated with lower compliance with social distancing measures. We thus draw a clear link from misinformation on social media to behaviours and attitudes that potentially magnify the scale and lethality of COVID-19.
Read preprint here
Twitter thread here, with an unrolled version here

The Harvard Kennedy School: Misinformation Review

Fellow Research: Pandemic Misinformation on Social Media
Montreal Gazette: People who get news from Twitter and Facebook more likely to be misinformed: McGill study
CTV News: Canadians who turn to social media for COVID-19 news more prone to misconceptions: study
iHeartRADIO: MCGILL RESEARCHERS FIND FACEBOOK AND TWITTER ARE MISINFORMATION SPREADERS.
La Presse: J’ai fait mes recherches
Le Journal de Montréal: COVID-19: corrélation entre les fausses informations des médias sociaux et le non-respect des règles sanitaires
Global News: Coronavirus: Social media users more likely to believe false information, McGill study suggests
City News: Study: Social media users likely to believe fake news
Radio Canada: Impact des fausses nouvelles sur la perception de la COVID-19
Radio Canada: C'est encore mieux l'après-midi
Radio Canada: Les usagers des médias sociaux plus vulnérables aux faussetés sur la COVID-19
National Post: COVID-19 conspiracy theories are creating a 'public health crisis' in Canada: experts


Our work is grounded in the premise that the integrity of the public sphere is under strain. On the surface, the most troubling manifestations are of isolated harms or “bad actors”: online forms of hate speech, harassment, “fake news”, and organized disinformation campaigns by foreign operators. But beneath these symptoms are structural issues which compromise the integrity of our information infrastructure: automation of control over information curation for purposes of attention maximization; erosion of public norms of source credibility in news media; fragmentation of media audiences that separates the polity from a common, fact-based public debate; and an accelerated tribalism that undermines democratic institutions.

Our project is actively developing, trialling, and refining methods for capturing these dynamics, and most importantly, for assessing the impact that they have on the behaviour of citizens and ultimately the health of our democracy. This addresses a gap in the research community to expand its monitoring and analysis of targeted disinformation campaigns towards a broader framework that captures the health of the wider information ecosystem.

The objective of MEO is to develop an evidence-based model for information ecosystem health, in order to both better understand the online harms and digital threats to democracy, and to safeguard against it. The Principal Investigators of MEO are Peter Loewen, Taylor Owen and Derek Ruths.

The Team



Aengus Bridgman is a PhD candidate in Political Science at McGill University and a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship. He studies political behaviour with a particular focus on the participation and motivation of online political activists. His work has been published in Party Politics.
Sean Nossek is a master’s student in political science and a researcher at McGill University. His thesis is on the relationship between the market power of firms and voting behavior, and he is interested in international political economy (IPE), computational methods, and causal inference. He also helps teach an intensive R bootcamp for the Policy and Data Science (PODS) summer program.


Julia Ma recently graduated from McGill University in May 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Joint Mathematics and Computer Science. She is currently a research assistant focusing on data collection. She completed three internships during her time in university, working in data analysis, controls engineering, and full-stack development in financial services.

Taylor Owen (co-PI) (DPhil, Oxford) is the Beaverbrook Chair in Media, Ethics and Communications and Associate Professor in the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. He is the Director of the McGill Center for Media, Technology and Democracy, a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation and a Fellow at the Public Policy Forum. His work focuses on the intersection of media, technology and public policy and can be found at taylorowen.com and @taylor_owen.

Peter Loewen (co-PI) (PhD, Montréal) is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. He is the Director of PEARL (Policy, Elections, and Representation Lab) and a Research Lead at the Schwarzt-Reisman Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Massey College and a Fellow with the Public Policy Forum. He is interested in how politicians can make better decisions, how citizens can make better choices, and how governments can address the disruption of technology and harness its opportunities. He has published his work in journals of political science, economics, psychology, biology, and general science.



Eric Merkley (PhD, UBC) is a postdoctoral fellow in the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the link between elite behaviour, news coverage, and public opinion, especially as they pertain to issues of expert or scientific consensus. His work has been published in journals such as the British Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, and Political Communication, among others.


Lisa Teichmann is a PhD student in German at McGill University. Her research focuses on the question of how computational text analysis methods and tools can form a repository for cross-cultural comparative literary analysis. She is part of txtLab and NovelTM: A Multi-University Digital Humanities Initiative. She is edditorial Assistant at the online open-access  Cultural Analytics Journal, a guest Researcher at the Academiae Corpora (Austrian Academy of Sciences), and a host on CKUT 90.3FM.
Elisa Chaudet is a master’s student in the School of Information Studies at McGill University. Previous to her current studies she completed a BFA in graphic design and photography, and after worked as a designer within marketing and government information. She has also previously worked in public libraries, collaborated on a publication about the Dutch squatters movement, and on the data rescue project, DRAW. She is currently also a student librarian Concordia University.

Oleg Zhilin is a Mozilla Fellow and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Computer Science at McGill University. He is interested in the understanding of online information propagation as well as all aspects of the data engineering process.


Derek Ruths (co-PI) is an Associate Professor at the School of Computer Science at McGill University. He is the Founding Director of the Centre for Social & Cultural Data Science and leads the Network Dynamics Laboratory for research on social informatics, social media analytics, and natural language processing. Derek is also the Chief Architect at a non-profit called Charitable Analytics International. He received his PhD in Computer Science from Rice University. Derek believes in the potential for computation and data analysis to support responsible, evidence-based decision making. This guides his professional work in teaching, research, entrepreneurship, and outreach.

 


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The core team of the MEO worked in a partnership with the Public Policy Forum on the Digital Democracy Project during the 2019 Canadian Federal Election.

The project studied the media ecosystem in the run-up to and during Canada’s October 2019 federal election by monitoring digital and social media and by conducting both regular national surveys and a study of a metered sample of online consumption. The project communicated research findings publicly on a regular basis from August to October 2019 (reports below), and will issue a final report in April.

The project was funded by the Rossy Family Foundation, the McConnell Foundation, and the Luminate Group. The project also participated in the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge, a collaborative research project led by Taylor Owen and Elizabeth Dubois, and funded by a grant from Heritage Canada. The DDP shared survey and online data with 18 research projects funded through the collaboration.




LESSONS IN RESILIENCE: Canada's Digital Media Ecosystem and the 2019 Election


The Canadian political information ecosystem is likely more resilient than that of other countries, in particular the U.S., due to a populace with relatively high trust in the traditional news media, relatively homogenous media preferences with only a marginal role for hyperpartisan news, high levels of political interest and knowledge, and — despite online fragmentation — fairly low levels of ideological polarization overall. While we do find affective polarization, which involves how individuals feel about other parties and their supporters, we find less polarization on issues, which has been a key point of vulnerability in other international elections.

Despite some worries about automated activity being used to game trending hashtags on Twitter or the presence of a few disreputable online outlets, our research suggests their impact was limited. While there remain significant blind spots in the online ecosystem caused by limited data access for researchers, based on the communication we could see, we did not find evidence of any impact attributable to a coordinated disinformation campaign.

Looking forward, however, we find evidence to suggest potential future vulnerabilities, most of which are related to growing partisanship and polarization, as well as the segmentation of the populace into online information environments that reinforce existing world views.

Research Memo #7: The Partisan Playground


One of the goals of the Digital Democracy Project has been to track the digital media environment in order to identify potential threats to Canadian democracy. Our previous reports have shown that social media does not likely contribute to political polarization in Canada, and that Canadians generally trust the traditional news media, with even strong partisans more likely to engage with mainstream outlets on social media than media sites that cater to the fringes. Moreover, the more partisan and fragmented discourse found online is not necessarily reflected in the attitudes and beliefs of the mass population. Despite this positive news, our final report of this election period—which draws on data collected over the past three months—suggests that the information environment continues to have key vulnerabilities. Partisans, who are the most active citizens during election periods, tend to favour sharing and consuming content conducive to their existing worldviews and engage less with other perspectives.

Research Memo #6: Political Advertising on Facebook


The Liberal Party outspent the Conservatives on Facebook. They also chose more narrowly targeted ads compared to the Conservatives’ “broadcast”-style strategy.

The highest-spending partisan third-party group, by far, was Canada Proud.
Troublingly, we found at least two advertisers purporting to show “fact checks” that were actually partisan advertisements.

Canadians do not seem to prefer positive ads to negative ads. Negative ads do drive up negative perceptions of the party that is targeted, but also of the party that pays for the ads.

Positive political ads appear to reduce affective polarization—dislike of parties or their supporters on the other end of the political spectrum simply because they belong to an opposing group.

Research Memo #5: Fact-Checking, Blackface and the Media


If there is a general theme emerging from these Digital Democracy Project reports, it is that much of the received wisdom about the current state of the media and democracy is, if not false, at least poorly supported by the available evidence. For example, contrary to popular belief, Canadians do not live in media-driven partisan echo chambers, and their trust in mainstream media remains quite high. And while there is some evidence of political polarization, that appears to be driven largely by the parties themselves and not by the media.
The good news, then, is that there appears to be a great deal of room for the media to play a valuable and constructive role in sustaining good-faith democratic engagement. This week’s report builds on these themes in two ways.

First, we have new survey results that suggest that there is a great deal of support among Canadians for fact-checking, and that it can be effective. Yet while fact-checking is a practice that has long been considered part of the bread and butter of accountability journalism, there is little evidence that journalist-based fact checking is more effective than any other means.
Second, a data-driven analysis of Justin Trudeau’s blackface controversy shows that the initial flood of online activity was marked by widespread sharing of solid journalism. As the initial interest in the story waned, further activity consisted by and large of conservatives talking among themselves, with little evidence of the conversation being influenced by inauthentic actors.

Research Memo #4: Talking Past Each Other on Immigration


Since the Digital Democracy Project began surveying Canadians earlier this summer, immigration has consistently ranked around the middle of the list of political issues of concern to the public. Canada has a long history of embracing immigrants and refugees, but with rising populist and nativist sentiment in the United States and Europe—and the emergence of the People’s Party of Canada at home—politicians and analysts have been watching closely to see if immigration is becoming a consequential election issue.

The short answer is that it is starting to, though not in the strictly polarizing manner that is usually feared. The good news is that Canadians across the political spectrum have somewhat complex and nuanced views on immigration, and that these views can be influenced by relevant information (such as the correct number of immigrants being admitted into the country.)
The bad news, perhaps, is that because the politics of immigration is so multi-dimensional, it means much of the public debate around it tends to be at cross purposes.

Research Memo #3: Polarization and its Discontents


Researchers, pundits and armchair analysts have argued for some time now that Canada is becoming more like the United States when it comes to polarization—typically understood as the segmenting of society into increasingly isolated and mutually incomprehensible political tribes. It is also common to see at least some of the blame for polarization placed on the media, where increasingly partisan social media echo chambers amplify disagreement and distort the public conversation.

Yet while there is some evidence that Canadians are polarized, according to our data, the story is a bit more complicated than is often assumed. In particular, the usual narrative of social media-based echo chambers driving real-world polarization is not supported by our survey and online data. Yes, some small subset of Twitter users tend to create online echo chambers, but our survey findings suggest that the offline impact is very limited.

Ultimately, the biggest driver of polarization seems to be ideology and partisanship themselves. As our political parties have become more ideologically distinct, their strongest partisans have tended to feel more distant from each other. This echoes one of our findings from our first research memo: it is the media consumers with strong partisan tendencies who are more likely to become misinformed with news exposure, especially via social media.

Research Memo #2: The Climate Change Conundrum


Over our first two surveys, two clear electoral issues are emerging: climate change (for Liberals and the left-leaning parties) and ethics (for the Conservatives). But if the Conservatives are having trouble finding an audience for ethics concerns, even among their core supporters, the Liberals appear to have an even more difficult conundrum: The very people who actually believe in their main issue don’t appear to have much interest in doing anything about it.

Research Memo #1: Media, Knowledge and Misinformation


Consumption of traditional print, broadcast and online media remains relatively high across partisan lines. Alternative media sources that cover politics from an overtly ideological perspective are more prevalent on Twitter than among the general public.

Canadians are somewhat trusting of traditional news outlets as a source for political news, especially compared to political parties and social media.

Exposure to both mainstream media and, to a greater extent, social media is associated with higher levels of misinformation. One key point of vulnerability is the greater tendency of media consumers with strong partisan tendencies to become misinformed with news exposure, especially via social media.

The environment has emerged as the dominant policy issue for Canadians, though markedly less so for Conservative party supporters. The topic was also prominent among political candidates and journalists on Twitter.

However, other issues that the public identified as important—such as healthcare and the economy—were less likely to be discussed by candidates and journalists.



Thank you to our funder: Canadian Heritage