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TCNJ Team Works to Understand the Twitter Stigma of COVID-19

The widespread impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be seen virtually everywhere, including social media. Assistant Professor of Communication Studies and Public Health Yachao Li and a team of four TCNJ students analyzed how COVID-19 stigma was created and communicated on Twitter. 

The team recently collected their findings in an article that was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The article explores the content and dissemination of COVID-19 stigma on Twitter, such as people referring to SARS-COV2 as the Chinese or Wuhan virus, or using the ChineseVirus hashtag, explains Li.

“I saw many hate crimes surrounding Asian people, as the pandemic went on,” says Li, who studies the intersection of message production and health disparities. “I wanted to look at how people communicate and create stigma on online social platforms.”

Li and Assistant Professor of Public Health Sylvia Twersky used content analysis to examine the data. 

“We retrieved 155,000 unique COVID-19 related Tweets published from Dec. 31, 2019 until March 13, 2020,” says Li. “This was during the first stage when we had limited knowledge and information about COVID-19.”

Out of the 155,000 Tweets, 7,000 were then randomly selected for human coding. The research team found that about one in four tweets posted during the early stage of the COVID-19 crisis included at least one element of the stigma communication content. Stigma message content was also more likely to appear in tweets that contained misinformation and conspiracy theories. 

image with headshots of 5 students

The research team included two communication studies undergraduate students Breeda Bennett-Jones ’21 and Radhika Purandare ’21, and two Master of Public Health students, Mei Zhao and Kelsey Ignase. 

Bennett-Jones, a communication studies major with a specialization in public & mass communication and a minor is art history, says that although coding was tricky at times, having the support of the team and a reliable codebook kept her on track throughout the research process. She added that many of the posts portrayed how widespread ignorance, racism and discrimination can be on social media. 

“Some of the Tweets we coded were very disturbing,” says Bennett-Jones. “This study gave me a better understanding of how the COVID stigma was developed against Asian-Americans and how harmful it can truly be.”

Purandare, a public health and communication studies major with a specialization in public & mass communication and minor in law, politics, and philosophy, says “It is not just that one group is seen as inferior. It’s that one group is discriminated against because of their physical appearance, their label, or because others view them as a threat or as responsible for the pandemic.”

Li says the global pandemic has changed the trajectory of the content he teaches.

“Our content is now much more relatable to our students,” Li says. “They have now had firsthand experience on how to create a public health message and how we can use public health to change people’s lives.”

Sara Petrozziello ’21


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