Wright State Ph.D. student Michele Miller says social reaction to Zika virus offers lessons about coronavirus

Michele Miller, environmental science teaching Ph.D. student

Short, clearly phrased public messages from health officials about coronavirus will likely have the most effective impact, says a Wright State University graduate researcher who studied social response to the Zika virus.

Michele Miller, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in environmental science teaching in the College of Science and Mathematics, studied public discourse and sentiment related to Zika on Twitter from February to April of 2016.

Miller found that brief phrases from health officials such as “Fight the Bite” to allay fears and promote prevention were the most effective.

“Short phrases that were easy to remember were much more impactful,” said Miller. “They are doing pretty well with that on coronavirus. Researchers really need to be clear and use terminology that the public understands.”

Miller began her research on Zika using social media in 2016 under the guidance of William Romine, associate professor of biology and principal investigator, and with help from Tanvi Banerjee, assistant professor of computer science, to learn computer coding and machine learning.

“Public health events such as the Zika virus or the current COVID-19 bring out the best in us, as well as the worst in us,” said Banerjee. “Using a social platform such as Twitter gives us unadulterated access to genuine public thoughts and sentiments to enable health officials provide real-time interventions.”

Miller collected 1.4 million tweets from around the world between February and April 2016.

“It was right when Zika was really ramping up and people were concerned whether the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro were going to happen or not,” she said.

Zika is caused by a virus transmitted by mosquitoes. Symptoms can include fever, rash, headaches, and muscle and joint pain. In pregnant women, it may cause birth defects. There is no vaccine or specific treatment.

Miller used machine-learning methodologies to find the relevant tweets and then put them into the categories related to transmission, treatment, prevention and symptoms.

“Then we really focused on the symptoms because that was what people were concerned about,” she said. “We found they had a negative sentiment about all of the symptoms that were showing up with Zika.”

The tweets included fears about the virus from individuals and links to news articles about Zika that quoted health officials.

Romine said it is a delicate balance for public health officials in trying to help people appreciate the urgency of the situation without causing panic.

“Data from current public discussions like those from Twitter help us understand where people’s ideas stand so that advisement can be structured thoughtfully,” he said.

Miller works for The Greentree Group, a Beavercreek-based strategic technology consulting company. For her master’s degree, she studied misconceptions about the Ebola virus. She is currently studying the social response to coronavirus (COVID-19).

Miller said the public needs to understand that scientists are still learning about coronavirus and that much is unknown.

“Predicted mortality rates may go lower or higher once we get a bigger sample,” she said. “We need to make it clear that what we know now could change.”

Miller said officials also must be careful not to lift stay-at-home orders too soon.

“We should slowly phase things in or we might see it spike up,” said Miller. “In Ohio, people are doing really well with shelter-in-place.”

Comments are closed.