Health & Wellness

Monitoring Social Media Reveals COVID-19 Trends

The symptoms people say they’re experiencing may not be what experts expect


By Caitlin Finlay

Many of the effects of COVID-19 that social media users report online may not show up in the symptom lists of established health bodies, according to a study of social media activity. The most common symptom reported by social media users—which did show up in official lists—was a combination of fatigue, lethargy, and weakness.

With COVID-related restrictions in place to keep us safe but stuck at home, many are turning to social media to maintain contact with friends and family, and many are posting about their experience with COVID-19. Taking advantage of the opportunity, researchers have turned to social media and a practice known as social listening to better understand the experiences of those with COVID-19 and the disease’s effects on daily life.

Social media provides a vast amount of information about both individual users and populations, and marketers have learned the value of social listening—using social media to monitor their brands’ influence, as well as the interests of specific populations or groups.

In a study published in Population Health Management, researchers used social-listening tools to extract data relating to COVID-19 experiences and symptoms from a Facebook group poll and a conversation on a Reddit group (subreddit) called COVID19-Positive. The Facebook poll was from a private group called COVID-19 Support Group, where participants listed symptoms they’d experienced then completed a poll based on a prior symptom list. The public Reddit group conversation and Facebook poll were analyzed using a TREND Community analytics engine—a type of artificial intelligence—that identified the number of times a symptom was mentioned. Many of the Reddit and Facebook responses included timelines of their experience with COVID-19, from which the researchers were able to gather symptoms, their frequency, and their duration.

The researchers then compared their findings with the symptoms listed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), WebMD, and the Mayo Clinic. The top-ranked symptom according to the Facebook poll was the combination of fatigue, lethargy, and weakness. This symptom was also found in the Reddit conversation, CDC symptom list, WHO symptom list, WebMD list, and Mayo Clinic list.

While many of the symptoms were consistent across lists, some symptoms noted in the Facebook or Reddit analyses were missing from one or more of the lists from the CDC, WHO, WebMD, and Mayo Clinic. These included relapse, emotional distress and anxiety, high heart rate and tachycardia, exhaustion caused by talking, loss of appetite, dizziness, insomnia, shivering or tremors, sweating, stiffness, abdominal pain, burning sensation in the lungs, and dehydration. This large list of symptoms missing from common health sources shows the limitations in the current method for gathering symptom data.

Researchers also found that 32 of the 81 Reddit group posts mentioned symptoms lasting four weeks or longer and the Facebook posts noted relapses; these findings are important because most current regulations recommend a two-week period to recover, which may not be enough time to recover fully.

Photo: iStock/marimo.