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JMIR Public Health and Surveillance


Background: The magnitude and time course of the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States depends on early interventions to reduce the basic reproductive number to below 1. It is imperative, then, to develop methods to actively assess where quarantine measures such as social distancing may be deficient and suppress those potential resurgence nodes as early as possible.

Objective: We ask if social media is an early indicator of public social distancing measures in the United States by investigating its correlation with the time-varying reproduction number (Rt) as compared to social mobility estimates reported from Google and Apple Maps.

Methods: In this observational study, the estimated Rt was obtained for the period between March 5 and April 5, 2020, using the EpiEstim package. Social media activity was assessed using queries of "social distancing" or "#socialdistancing" on Google Trends, Instagram, and Twitter, with social mobility assessed using Apple and Google Maps data. Cross-correlations were performed between Rt and social media activity or mobility for the United States. We used Pearson correlations and the coefficient of determination (ρ) with significance set to P<.05.

Results: Negative correlations were found between Google search interest for "social distancing" and Rt in the United States (P<.001), and between search interest and state-specific Rt for 9 states with the highest COVID-19 cases (P<.001); most states experienced a delay varying between 3-8 days before reaching significance. A negative correlation was seen at a 4-day delay from the start of the Instagram hashtag "#socialdistancing" and at 6 days for Twitter (P<.001). Significant correlations between Rt and social media manifest earlier in time compared to social mobility measures from Google and Apple Maps, with peaks at -6 and -4 days. Meanwhile, changes in social mobility correlated best with Rt at -2 days and +1 day for workplace and grocery/pharmacy, respectively.

Conclusions: Our study demonstrates the potential use of Google Trends, Instagram, and Twitter as epidemiological tools in the assessment of social distancing measures in the United States during the early course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their correlation and earlier rise and peak in correlative strength with Rt when compared to social mobility may provide proactive insight into whether social distancing efforts are sufficiently enacted. Whether this proves valuable in the creation of more accurate assessments of the early epidemic course is uncertain due to limitations. These limitations include the use of a biased sample that is internet literate with internet access, which may covary with socioeconomic status, education, geography, and age, and the use of subtotal social media mentions of social distancing. Future studies should focus on investigating how social media reactions change during the course of the epidemic, as well as the conversion of social media behavior to actual physical behavior.



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Apple Maps, COVID-19, Google Maps, Google Trends, Instagram, Twitter, epidemic, estimated reproduction number, pandemic, public health surveillance, reproduction number, social distancing, social media, social media surveillance