Wikipedia research on diseases strongly synchronised with news coverage

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A study conducted by researchers at the ISI Foundation in Italy have found that hits on Wikipedia pages related to specific diseases may be closely synchronised with media coverage of the same diseases.

During outbreaks of a newly emerging infection, such as the current coronavirus pandemic, media outlets play a leading role in communicating risks and the ways in which people can protect themselves.

Previously, researchers have investigated how the public responds to media coverage during the early stages of disease outbreaks, although this marks the first such study based on observational data rather than surveys.

In this study, Michele Tizzoni and his colleagues looked specifically at the relationship between media coverage and public attention to the 2015-16 Zika epidemic. The epidemic, which was caused by the mosquito borne Zika virus, spread from the Americas to several Pacific Islands and parts of Southeast Asia, resulting in birth defects such as microcephaly.

Tizzoni analysed the number of times that people in the US accessed Wikipedia pages related to Zika in 2016 and compared those data with Zika incidence rates and media coverage of the outbreak.

The researchers found that Zika-related Wikipedia page views were highly synchronised with coverage of the outbreak in online news and broadcast news at both the state and national level. Despite confirmed Zika cases varying significantly between states, patterns of Wikipedia page views were very similar across the US.

Media coverage appeared to have a far larger impact on Zika-related Wikipedia page views than local disease risk.

“Wikipedia page view data represent an invaluable and granular resource to study global patterns of collective attention during outbreaks,” said Tizzoni. “We can use such critical data to find patterns across a country and how behaviour changes by region.”

Tizzoni suggests that his team’s findings could help public health officials refine their crisis communication strategies, although further research is required to clarify whether this close pattern of synchronisation is similar across different disease outbreak scenarios, and in different countries. This is particularly important in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, in which internet platforms, governments and health experts are battling a tide of often-dangerous disinformation about the outbreak.

“Wikipedia is a trove of freely available content, but many people might not know that it is also a vast resource for open data that can provide valuable insight into what's capturing the attention of the world at any given moment,” said Miriam Redi, research scientist at the Wikimedia Foundation. She added that the Wikipedia page view dataset used in the ISI Foundation study would soon be released as a publicly-available research resource.

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