Analysis of COVID-19 related tweets shows emphasis on self-centric, support seeking content among users that disclose personal information

“Self-disclosure” refers to the intentional disclosure of personal information, such as location, behaviour or feelings, to third-parties. We all do it, to an extent, because sharing little bits of personal information is a way of cementing social relationships, and increasing likability. For instance, throughout lockdown, my colleagues and I have been talking about hobbies, family, worries and wins… and that has helped us stay close and function as a group, even though we haven’t been in the same building for more than 3 months!

 

However, self-disclosures also present a risk. Revealing personal information can put us at risk of identity theft, harassment and trolling, to name a few. So, most of us think very carefully before posting sensitive information on social media.

 

The body of work studying disclosures of personal information is generally referred to the “Privacy Paradox”, to reflect the fact that there is usually a gap between what we say about sharing personal information vs how we behave. The literature on how and why people disclose private information has considered a broad range of factors, such as attitudes, type of information, or the perception of the costs and benefits of sharing personal information with others.

 

But what about a public health crisis? Does facing a public health emergency change how much personal information people reveal, and what they reveal?

 

The answer to both questions is “yes“, according to a study by Taylor Blose, Prasanna Umar, Anna Squicciarini and Sarah Rajtmajer. The researchers analysed a set of 39,389,715 unique tweets, in English, related to the COVID-19 crisis, collected between March 1st and April 3rd, 2020. The results from the study were reported in a paper entitled “Privacy in Crisis: A study of self-disclosure during the Coronavirus pandemic”, available in open access.

 

The researchers found a significant increase in the number of tweets with self-disclosure (i.e., which voluntarily revealed personal information), as the crisis evolved. For instance, when the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified the new Coronavirus (SARS-Cov-2) as a pandemic, on March 11th; when the US declared a national state of emergency, and the first lockdown order was issued; and so on.

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Moreover – and more interestingly – the researchers also looked at how the topics of the tweets that contained self-disclosure varied from those that didn’t. Namely, in their paper, the authors reported that, before the March 11th tipping point, there was no significant difference between the topics discussed in those tweets that also contained self-disclosure and those that didn’t. Specifically, they both talked about the expected impacts of COVID-19 on their health, possible cancellation of events, and so on. Both groups also discussed public health recommendations, such as the instructions to wash hands, wear face masks and work from home, whenever possible. Some tweets also discussed the political dimensions of the crisis, with tweets mentioning the words “country”, “China” and “Trump”.

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However, after March 11th (when the disease was declared a pandemic, and the point at which there was a sharp increase in the proportion of self-disclosing tweets), these generic topics loose importance among the self-disclosure group. While they are still present, those topics are outnumbered by tweets discussing how to manage the spread of the virus (Topic 3) and by tweets discussing needs, asking for help and support, or thanking others (Topic 1).

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As the authors say:

“(There was) a shift from outward-looking to self-centric messaging as well as early evidence of emotional support and support seeking through disclosure” (page 5).

 

This shift was not evident in the non-disclosure set of messages.

 

The authors observed a similar shift towards seeking support, among a set of self-disclosure tweets related to Hurricane Harvey (which hit the Southern region of the US in late August 2017).

 

Whether people disclose private information because they need practical and emotional support; or, on the contrary, those that tend to disclose personal information are also more likely to be in need (for instance, because they lack an offline support network, or because they face economic precarity), we don’t know. However, this study points towards a link between consumer vulnerability and privacy compromising behaviours.

 

In turn, this possible link shows the importance of the privacy by design principle at the heart of GDPR, to protect vulnerable consumer segments. It also reinforces the need for public health initiatives – such as contact tracing apps – to protect privacy by default.

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