Speaking the Language of Coronavirus: An analysis of the words and phrases that spread viral content

Speaking the Language of Coronavirus: An analysis of the words and phrases that spread viral content

Between March 10 and April 23 there was an approximately 1478% increase in engagement with coronavirus-related content:

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So – aside from the obvious – why are we obsessively consuming this content?

Why, when your area may not even have cases of coronavirus yet, do you find yourself reading and thinking about it constantly?

And can we – as marketers – reverse-engineer this mass viral content outbreak to better understand how information spreads?

Here are three key insights that doing this can teach us:

1. Understand behavioural psychology as it relates to our current circumstances.

In the case of Covid-19, what we’re seeing is a typical and highly predictable human response to risk perception in relation to health and medical threats. Especially pandemics.

Of course, the term “pandemic” also carries the weight of historical disasters.

Here’s a little more historical context dating all the way back to the Antonine Plague:

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Source: Visual Capitalist

Despite Covid-19’s relatively low impact to date compared to other more catastrophic pandemics (like the Bubonic Plague), any person with even an iota of historical pandemic knowledge is likely to be a little concerned just by the use of the term “pandemic”.

But historical context isn’t the only thing scary about a pandemic.

As Dr. Steven Taylor, clinical psychologist, says in his newly released book, The Psychology of Pandemics:

“Pandemics of infectious disease are not just events in which some infectious “bug” spreads throughout the world. Pandemics are events in which the population’s psychological reactions to infection play an essential role in both the spreading and containment of the disease, and influence the extent to which widespread emotional distress and social disorder occur.”

It turns out our behavior and reactions matter not only to the physical spread of the disease, but also to the spread of information and emotion.

We’re Living In Unprecedented Times…

As WHO states, disease outbreaks (like pandemics) are “frequently marked by uncertainty, confusion and a sense of urgency.”

Risk communication expert David Ropeik explains:

“when we don’t understand something [it] leaves us feeling like we don’t know everything we need to know to protect ourselves … that equates to powerlessness, vulnerability.”

It’s that uncertainty and confusion that makes us (and keeps us) scared. And, in an effort to find certainty in uncertainty, we drastically change the way we consume media.

Consider statistics from an ongoing study conducted by Ofcom monitoring the way in which people in the UK are accessing Covid-19 related news and information:

  • During the first week of this study, 99% of respondents said that they were accessing Covid-19 information or news at least once per day.
  • Of those same respondents, 24% of them said they were accessing Covid-19 information or news 20 times or more a day.

With even this small sample population, it’s easy to see how our behavior, on a global scale, skyrockets engagement and consumption of Covid-19 information and news.

A Little More on Behaviors That Feed Fear

In The Psychology of Pandemics, Taylor goes on to say that there are three main ways to spread beliefs, fears and – by extension – emotion:

  1. Information transmission, via text, images or verbal communication from others.
  2. Direct personal experiences, including exposure to trauma.
  3. Observational learning.

Point two speaks directly to each of our own individual lived experiences, so it’s points one and three that are most relevant to this discussion about the spread of coronavirus-related fear.

Let’s begin by digging a little deeper into observational learning, since this aspect lies in the realm of non-verbal, lizard-brain territory:

When “Do As I Say, Not As I Do” Is No Longer Applicable

As Cialdini puts it:

“In times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn, from the way [others] are reacting, whether the event is or is not an emergency.”

Recent research and studies conducted on both animals and humans demonstrates this connection between social cues signalling a threat and the associated response of either triggered or amplified fear.

Putting this into the context of past pandemics, research studying children’s perceived fear of the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic showed significant correlation to that of their parent’s fear of the flu.

We need not look any further than the recent sky-rocketing demand for toilet paper to see people taking behavioral clues from those around them:

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Headline: Women fight over toilet paper during coronavirus panic buying in Australia

These initial buying sprees were not because toilet paper is the answer to all things coronavirus, but because we were fed behavioral cues from others that it is the correct action to take.

And the toilet paper mania wasn’t all in our heads. In Canada, StatCan noted that receipts for toilet paper in the week leading up to March 14 was up 241% compared to the 2019 average.

And we need only look back to the 2003 SARS epidemic to see similar behavior. It apparently only took one Hong Kong hoax post from a teenager stating that the city was to be declared “an infected place” and closed off to the rest of the world on a fake news site to spark mass panic-buying across the city.

It’s reassuring to know we humans are so predictable.

Now let’s dig into some of the language used in various types of information transmission:

2. Create messaging that feeds our underlying desire for certainty.

Cialdini suggests that we defer first to authority figures because they wield titles and privileges that afford them additional access to power and information.

Because COVID-19 is a disease, we’re talking about contextually important organizations that carry authority in the spaces of medicine and policy, like:

  • CDC
  • WHO
  • National Public Health Departments
  • Doctors and medical health experts
  • And, to a certain extent, governments

WHO’s Communicating Risk in Public Health Emergencies Guidelines recommends that risk communication messaging should:

  1. Focus on communicating risk in easy-to-understand terms (i.e. not technical).
  2. Be consistent across information sources.
  3. Promote specific actions that the general population can take to protect their health.

WHO also outlines that, in order to build trust and promote active engagement with affected populations, communication provided by authorities should:

  1. Offer explicit information around uncertainties associated with risks.
  2. Indicate what is known and not known at any given time.

As Taylor stated, the general public plays a major part in the “spreading and containment of the disease”. With this in mind, WHO’s messaging recommendations are guidelines to communicate risk in a manner that gains the public’s compliance.

In an environment of uncertainty, syntax provides important clues.

In Words That Change Minds, Shelle Rose Charvet explains that language patterns that imply proactive motivation help to incite certainty. These language patterns:

  • Rely on short sentence structures built around clear nouns, active verbs and direct objects.
  • Use crisp, clear and direct language to imply the speaker’s control over the situation.

In contrast, language patterns that imply reactive motivation and uncertainty include:

  • Sentence fragments that may be missing subjects or verbs, use passive verbs or use verbs transformed into nouns.
  • Language implying that the speaker is powerless in the situation happening around them.
  • Long, indirect sentences that mention thinking, analyzing, understanding or waiting.
  • Conditional language, like if, would, might, may and might.

Given WHO’s guidelines and the known desire for the population to find certainty, syntax in language used provides further clarity to the message and the authority figure’s control over the situation.

Primary source messaging from figures of authority

Let’s take a look at some of the risk communication coming directly from the various U.S. official medical and government bodies, using WHO’s trust-building messaging guidelines plus an eye on messaging syntax as a framework for analysis

Let’s begin with a video from March 24:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k6Kh_A0LBk

Based on the above-linked video where President Trump and Dr. Fauci (director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) on the reopening of the country:

  • Is the message easy to understand?
  • Is the message consistent with official messaging found elsewhere?
  • Is the message focused on specific actions we can take to protect our health?
  • Does the message offer explicit information about uncertainties?
  • Does the message indicate what’s known and not known?
  • Proactive or reactive messaging?

Consider those same questions in relation to this video from April 10, where President Trump responds to a question regarding how he’ll make the decision to reopen the economy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1B8Sx9pEr8

And consider those questions one more time, for this video from April 22 where Dr. Fauci discussing the likelihood of coronavirus as a long-standing health threat and reopening the economy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5dfOTX0iz4

The political climate in the U.S. is polarized…………. to say the least.

With that in mind it’s perhaps unsurprising that messaging between government and medical authorities has been contradictory in nature.

And while that may simply be annoying during regular everyday life, during a public health crisis it can be downright dangerous.

Of course, this is a developing situation and messaging may change with the situation. But to find consistent contradictions between government and medical authorities on an ongoing basis?

If the government isn’t certain about what to do and the medical authorities aren’t certain about what to do either, how are we to have any idea what to do?

To make matters worse, while we can’t see the virus, we can certainly see the economy tanking.

And all of this leaves us to spiral around questions like:

  • When will the economy actually reopen?
  • When will the borders reopen?
  • When will schools reopen?
  • Will my life ever go back to normal?
  • And what should I actually be doing to protect my health?

Enter the much larger, much scarier government-sponsored uncertainty currently looming in many peoples’ daily lives.

(Disinformation is an entirely different can of worms which we’re not getting into.)

Leveraging influencer and celebrity visibility to spread primary source messaging from official figures of authority

Of course, different authority figures apply different communication strategies, hopefully tailored to the cultural context of their population.

Take, for example, the Vietnamese National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health partnered with pop singers ERIK and MIN to produce “Ghen Co Vy,” an animated PSA that encourages handwashing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtulL3oArQw

(I’ve included the video with English subtitles above, see the original YouTube video here. Listeners beware: it’s definitely a bop.)

In this case, the Vietnamese government leveraged a celebrity with public appeal to help spread the PSA by first posting it on MIN’s YouTube channel.

The original PSA on YouTube has been viewed over 39M times since its posting on February 23, 2020. It hasn’t yet reached the realms of most-viewed YouTube videos ever, like Baby Shark (currently 4.91B views) or Despacito (currently 6.69B views).

So how does it check-out in relation to our primary source messaging guidelines?

Is it easy to understand?

Yes, the video includes in-picture subtitles to support the animated graphics and music.

Is it consistent with official messaging found elsewhere?

Unsure, though it doesn’t seem to explicitly contradict other messaging from government officials in Vietnam.

Is the message focused on specific actions we can take to protect our health? 

Yes, it provides clear written and visual instructions to:

  • Wash your hands
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes
  • Limit going to crowded places
  • Take care of your health
  • Keep your home clean

Does it offer explicit information about uncertainties?

No.

Does it indicate what’s known and not known?

It briefly unpacks what was known at the time of the virus (e.g., originated in Wuhan) and doesn’t explicitly state what is not known.

Is it proactive or reactive messaging?

Acknowledging syntax variations between languages, this one is a little more difficult to analyze. The English subtitles lead me to believe that it skews towards proactive messaging, that includes short, direct sentences that implies control over the situation.

The video also spread as a dance challenge across TikTok using the hashtag #ghencovychallenge, inspiring others to create videos of their own thereby extending the reach of the original message.

As of April 24, the dance challenge has over 34.2M views:

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All in all, an interesting use case in using influencers to spread official risk communication messaging.

Of course, not all messaging found in the mainstream media is as helpful as this PSA….

3. Amplify reach by using emotionally charged language.

As HubSpot Academy growth marketer Eric Peters says:

“On the human side, when a piece of content excites its audience, triggering an emotional response, to the point that they can’t help but to share it.”

In a study that analyzed emotional contagion in internet memes, results suggested that the sweet spot for viral content lies in the range of emotions that a piece of content can elicit. In other words, a mix of fear and hope is more compelling than fear alone. Better still if you can trigger feelings of anger or disgust.

Here the communication goal shifts from encouraging protocol compliance to gaining readership. Because – let’s face it – the media wants you coming back for more. That’s how their business operates.

Of course, Covid-19 content is poised to elicit a wide range of emotions.

It’s brought out the worst in some people:

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And, arguably, the best in others:

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(Did I weep when the cast of ‘Hamilton’ made a surprise appearance to sing to sweet little Aubrey who wasn’t able to see the show live because of the pandemic? Yes, I absolutely did.)

But there’s more than just feel-good stories and anger-inducing headlines at play when it comes to rapid information spread in the mainstream media:

Volume + Content + Tone = Widespread Dramatized Media Coverage

We’re so predictable.

And there’s historical context to show that what we’re experiencing in the COVID-19 era is not an isolated incident.

How media coverage played out during the 2009 H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic

In a study examining the media surrounding the Swine Flu, researchers laid out the following three indicators of dramatized media coverage:

  1. The volume of media coverage.
  2. The content itself, particularly if it emphasized threat over self-protection.
  3. The tone of the coverage.

They developed these factors based on theory and empirical evidence from risk research, health communication and journalism studies.

In the case of the Swine Flu coverage content-analytical studies, the first two indicators listed were consistently found and results around tone were inconclusive. From these findings, they concluded that the media attention did not match the trajectory of the medical “footprint” and may have actually contributed to heightened risk perceptions through their high coverage volume and an “unbalanced emphasis” on the threat of the disease.

Turning to the topic of content and tone, the public were served up content like this post from CNN:

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Emphasis of threat or self-protection? 

Threat. There are no mentions of any specific self-protection steps a reader could take to protect their health.

Overall tone (as analyzed by Tone Analyzer): Fear and analytical.

… and this post from ABC News:

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Emphasis of threat or self-protection?

Threat. The article calls into question previously advised self-protection guidelines without offering additional steps a reader can take to protect their health.

Overall content tone: Fear, sadness, analytical and tentative.

… and this post from The New York Times:

image9Emphasis of threat or self-protection?

Mostly threat. The article recommends that readers get vaccinated, but spends most of the article discussing the current vaccine shortages.

Overall content tone: Fear, sadness, analytical and tentative.

All three of these articles emphasize the threat of the virus and are laced with conditional language and scarcity. Even just this small sample doesn’t make it too hard to imagine the difficulty a reader could have in keeping a balanced perspective of the threat.

We see similar information spread patterns in the 2014 Ebola outbreak:

The U.S. provides a perfect example of a communication failure. In an article discussing what has been dubbed as “fearbola”, Paul Slovic, PhD, professor at the University of Oregon and president of Decision Research said:

“The minute the Ebola threat was communicated, it hit all of the hot buttons: It can be fatal, it’s invisible and hard to protect against, exposure is involuntary and it’s not clear that the authorities are in control of the situation.”

Despite barely any confirmed U.S. cases (less than 10), Ebola spread rapidly in the media. In fact, The Lancet‘s analysis of social media traffic during the month of October 2014 showed more than 21 million tweets about Ebola in the U.S., where the outbreak left a total medical “footprint” of 11 cases resulting in two deaths. Compare that to the 13K tweets about Ebola in Western African countries like Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where there were approximately 5,000 deaths and 14,000 cases.

And now for the COVID-19 media coverage:

As of April 24, Google showed over 2.5B results for “coronavirus”:

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So do we have immense total volume in media coverage? A resounding yes.

Let’s take a look at some of the top 4 pieces of viral content published since COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic:

From The Washington Post on March 14:

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Emphasis of threat or self-protection? 

Both. The content itself provides an in-depth interactive look at how different safety measures like social distancing and forced quarantines play out using a fake disease simulation. The information is presented in a demonstrative manner, without being overly emotional.

Overall content tone: Analytical and sadness.

From USA Today on March 27:

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Emphasis of threat or self-protection? 

This article leans towards emphasis of threat. This article provides several speculations with plenty of conditional language and otherwise reactive language patterns.

Overall content tone: Tentative, analytical and sadness.

From Forbes on April 13:

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Emphasis of threat or self-protection? 

Neither, though it skews slightly towards self-protection since it outlines the ways in which other countries are handling their COVID-19 outbreaks. Important to note that the primary threat put forth in this article is not the disease itself but, as author Avivah Wittenberb-Cox puts it: the “strongmen using the crisis to accelerate a terrifying trifecta of authoritarianism.”

Overall content tone: Analytical, sadness and joy.

And, finally, from NBC News on April 23:

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Emphasis of threat or self-protection? 

The content places an emphasis on threat messaging, though this time around the threat of government officials offering any type of health messaging that touts unproven treatments. There are no mentions of self-protection other than the advice to consult a doctor.

Overall content tone: Analytical, tentative (Trump’s quotes are highlighted with this emotional tone), joy and sadness.

In looking at the threat vs. self-protection messaging, it seems that as stay-at-home orders, social distancing, lockdowns, quarantines and low quantities of toilet paper become our new (yet wildly bizarre) normal, the perceived threat is shifting from the disease itself to our fellow humans – particularly figures in authority-wielding positions.

Interesting, considering they’re one of the first places we turn to when looking for certainty.

And all of this begs the question: how should we use this knowledge?

There are some takeaways to glean from this perfect-storm scenario for viral content:

  1. Historical context provides the foundation for understanding our behavior and emotional responses.
  2. Content is particularly effective when it satisfies our lizard brain’s underlying desires in relation to situational context.
  3. Emotion can help spread news like wildfire, but there’s always a fine line to tread.

There’s no denying that emotion sells, but we as marketers have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the words we use communicate the truth. Weaponizing language to whip up public fear is dangerous and fans the spread of disinformation.

As interaction design consultant Nick Disabato said:

“If you ran a physical store and a real human being with a face walked in and had their own dreams and aspirations, would you treat them in the same way? [… ] If you wouldn’t do it in real life and you wouldn’t do it to somebody that you know, don’t do it on the internet.”

Please use this information responsibly.

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