WASHINGTON — The Department of Health and Human Services’ preparedness and response division is confronting the deadliest pandemic in a century, and its leaders want to know how America is feeling.
In a series of slides dated Monday and obtained by The New York Times, the department’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response presented a “public sentiment analysis” that summarized how Americans on social media were reacting emotionally to major news about the coronavirus over the past month.
Bottom line: Not well.
“The public continued to express sadness and fear as more people talked about being infected or having a loved one infected with or die from the virus,” the analysis by the technology company Brandwatch found.
The document is remarkably granular, examining fluctuations in emotions based on news events large and small: California’s mandatory stay-at-home order, the president signing the $2 trillion economic stabilization package, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting the public wear masks, Queen Elizabeth II addressing Britain.
The Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to questions about the analysis. But a former department official who is familiar with the program said the agency has done similar social media assessments of the public mood during previous disasters. The goal, the former official said, is often to gauge the effectiveness of the federal response by understanding how people are feeling.
It was not immediately clear how widely the public sentiment analysis was shared across the federal government or whether this or similar reports factored into making decisions.
Not surprisingly, emotions, driven by disgust, soared on March 12 when the stock market hit its lowest point since 1987. And there was a similar reaction when President Trump announced guidelines about avoiding large crowds in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
Given the gravity of the pandemic that has taken nearly 15,000 American lives, a pulse on the nation’s feelings did not appear to yield any great revelations. People on social media are angry about the federal response to the coronavirus and about people in their communities not following public health guidelines, the analysis found. And in the past week, as the death toll continued to rise, fewer people were speaking positively about the coronavirus.
More remarkable is that the office of the assistant secretary for preparedness and response is bothering to compile such sentiments.
The company that collected and analyzed the data, Brandwatch, tracks discussions on social networks and, according to its website, offers a “new kind of intelligence.”
For the health and human services analysis, Brandwatch tracked emotions in six categories: anger, disgust, fear, joy, surprise and sadness. And it reviewed online discussion data from what was described as “top news sites” with the majority coming from the website spotcrime.com, which tracks crimes by locations. Destinations more widely considered to be top news sites were not included in the analysis.
Brandwatch did not respond to questions about the findings.
Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that a Brandwatch company, Crimson Hexagon, had a $30,000 contract with the C.D.C. dating back to last year. The contract covered topics related to injury prevention.
Health and human services officials beefed up the department’s social media team several years ago, the former official said. During disasters, members of that team monitor Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms since people often communicate their needs in that way when more official communication systems are down. In the immediate aftermath of a hurricane or an earthquake, social media posts can often direct resources to the areas that are hardest hit.
But the communications teams have also examined broader social media trends to evaluate whether the level of the aid is adequate, based on the degree of satisfaction or frustration expressed online, the former official said.