Americans’ interest in seeking information about the novel coronavirus online spiked the day after the first case of COVID-19 was announced in their state but decreased back to baseline levels in less than two weeks, according to a study by researchers at Indiana University.
Ana Bento, co-corresponding author on the study and an assistant professor in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, said that knowing more about the public’s information-seeking behavior during a crisis will help government and health officials improve communication strategies as this pandemic evolves or as future health crises arise.
Bento and her colleagues — an interdisciplinary team of public health, computer science and policy experts — looked at Google Trends data to measure daily searches for keywords such as “coronavirus symptoms,” “quarantine” and “hand sanitizer” in a given state. They also looked at searches for keywords pertaining to coronavirus conspiracy theories and hoaxes to provide a control group for their results.
Their findings, published in the scientific journal PNAS, suggest that the disclosure of information by the government does help focus public attention on a crisis. Specifically, searches for “coronavirus” increased by 36 percent on the day immediately following the first case announcement in a given area. However, internet searches for the term reverted to the baseline in less than two weeks. In the days leading up to the first case announcements of COVID-19, they found no observable trend in online search behavior.