DECIPHER - Deciphering the Pandemic Sphere

As Covid-19 has become a global challenge, state authorities tried to mitigate the impact of the pandemic according to their political and cultural context, which led to considerable differences in government and citizen responses. Consequently, the discourse on Covid-19 is shaped by multiple voices and is strongly mediatized. Moreover, it unfolds against the backdrop of an ongoing structural transformation of the public sphere, which is primarily characterized by the hybridization of media systems. This is creating what we tentatively call a pandemic public sphere, which not only influences political decision-making and individual well-being but also the spread of the disease itself.According to WHO Director-General Ghebreyesus, "we are not only fighting an epidemic, but an infodemic" (UN DGC, 2020), referring to an excessive amount of information that “spread faster and more easily than this virus" (UN DGC, 2020). Likewise, the European Commission noted that disinformation “can lead people to ignore official health advice and engage in risky behavior” (European Commission, 2020). Indeed, disinformation contributes to assertions that deny crises and thus hamper a discourse of renewal.

With the increasing availability of digital data, the importance of computational data analysis requiring algorithmic solutionsis growing, but has limited application in risk and crisis communication research. Computational analyses facilitate cross-national analyses of public communication in social media and a more effective study of temporal aspects of government communication, media coverage, and citizen responses. This allows examining the impact of government response with changes in infection rates and exploring sources of conspiracy allegations or echo chambers that contribute to the polarization of groups around shared narratives. A computational approach could even support data-driven risk communication policies. As regards social media, as a first step we will use two databases containing more than 635 million tweets about Covid-19 from the public in various countries and more than one million tweets from state actors and the media as of August 23, 2020.

For this project, we follow several research questions:

- focus on a comparative analysis of the communication of governments and health institutions on Covid-19, examining risk and instructional messages they have constructed to communicate with citizens and the media, and how these messages have evolved during the pandemic.

- comparatively analyze the citizens’perspective on both the pandemic and messages about Covid-19 from governments and health institutions, to what extent these messages met citizens’ informational needs, and which communities of responses to government communication evolved on social media.

You can find more information on our project website.

This project is funded by DFG under grant no: STE 3033/1-1.


Dr. Nadine Steinmetz

M.Sc. Khaoula Benmaarouf