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Collective emotions during the COVID-19 outbreak

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the world’s population to unprecedented health threats and changes to social life. High uncertainty about the novel disease and its social and economic consequences, together with increasingly stringent governmental measures against the spread of the virus, likely elicited strong emotional responses.

We analyzed the digital traces of emotional expressions in tweets during 5 weeks after the start of outbreaks in 18 countries and six different languages. We observed an early strong upsurge of anxiety-related terms in all countries, which was related to the growth in cases and increases in the stringency of governmental measures. Anxiety expression gradually relaxed once stringent measures were in place, possibly indicating that people were reassured. Sadness terms rose and anger terms decreased with or after an increase in the stringency of measures and remained stable as long as measures were in place. Positive emotion words only decreased slightly and briefly in a few countries.

Our results reveal some of the most enduring changes in emotional expression observed in long periods of social media data. Such sustained emotional expression could indicate that interactions between users led to the emergence of collective emotions. Words that frequently occurred in tweets suggest a shift in topics of conversation across all emotions, from political ones in 2019, to pandemic related issues during the outbreak, including everyday life changes, other people, and health.

This kind of time-sensitive analyses of large-scale samples of emotional expression have the potential to inform risk communication.

H. Metzler, B. Rimé, M. Pellert, T. Niederkrotenthaler, A. Di Natale, D. Garcia, Collective emotions during the COVID-19 outbreak, Emotion (2022)

Hannah Metzler, researcher at the Complexity Science Hub © Verena Ahne

Hannah Metzler

Anna Di Natale

David Garcia

Max Pellert

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