Current events

What to expect when coronavirus becomes a character on Twitter

02/04/2020
Elsa Velasco
UOC researchers analyse whether @CoronaVid19's humorous posts may help to alleviate the collective fear brought on by the current pandemic

As the global coronavirus crisis grows, so does the number of stories being shared on social media about the pandemic. Patients, medical professionals and people confined at home have taken to these networks to share their takes on the exceptional situation and tell their stories. Yet one Twitter user stands out among the rest of these online storytellers. We are, of course, referring to @CoronaVid19, a fictitious personification of the virus that uses humour to report on the pandemic in real time. Now, researchers at the UOC are analysing the viral phenomenon to determine its impact on the collective debate surrounding the crisis.

The @CoronaVid19 account made its debut on Twitter on 24 February, coinciding with the detection of the very first cases of coronavirus infection in peninsular Spanish territory. In just two days, word of the account spread like wildfire, bringing in upwards of 400,000 followers. More came pouring in over the month that followed, helping the account reach over 735,000. During that same period, the account tweeted over 500 times. Since the beginning, the account has provided up-to-date information on the crisis in Spain through sarcastic comments written in the first person as though by the coronavirus itself. The profile description on Twitter in Spanish reads, "COVID-19 OFICIAL (de aquella manera). Soy pandemia. La RAE me ha hecho mujer", through which the character declares itself as an official pandemic and refers to the fact that the illness caused by coronavirus, known as COVID-19, was grammatically assigned feminine gender by Spain's language authority.

The way the fictitious character was used to tell the story of this unprecedented global crisis piqued the interest of UOC researchers Antoni Roig, from the Research Group on Digital Media and Culture (MEDIACCIONS), and Sandra Martorell, from the Learning, Media and Entertainment Research Group (GAME). The two have been gathering data on Twitter every day since February in order to analyse how the character's narrative develops and changes over time, how it relates to current events, how it interacts with other users and what effects it has on its followers, with an ultimate view to determining whether its choice of humour helps to offset the collective fear caused by the pandemic. The research initiative is framed within the D-STORIES project, which seeks to understand the role that stories, especially digital ones, play in contemporary society.

 

Using humour to battle a crisis

Antoni Roig, who is also a professor at the UOC's Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences, said: "Humour is easily belittled as something trivial […] but it is a way for us to confront the things that worry us, to channel our feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty into a tool for reflection." The impact of this phenomenon may even transcend humour, to which Roig added: "The crisis affects us all, and through this account people are showing solidarity, sharing experiences and venting their feelings."

The researchers plan to analyse how the storytelling develops over the course of the crisis in Spain, and thus hope to have the bulk of their results within the coming months. That being said, they have already begun to work out some of the features of the @CoronaVid19 account and its storytelling strategy. Roig said: "We still don't know who is behind [the account], but I think it's a skilled humourist. They've never taken the black humour too far and have a marked costumbrista style. They give an account of what people and politicians are up to, all in an attempt to raise a laugh."

 

Using fiction to explain current events

One of @CoronaVid19's main traits is its consistency in tweeting about current events, whether in the form of media quotes or personal comments on the day's happenings. "For example, on the day the lockdown began in Spain, one of the tweets read '¿Dnde estis?'," the UOC researcher recalled. In this case, the virus was asking everyone where they had disappeared to, as if unaware of the reason behind the empty streets. The example also illustrates a typical trope in fiction. "[The tweet] reinforces the idea that confinement can help us to beat [the virus]. It provides encouragement to those people who are doing the right thing," Roig added. Meanwhile, in other tweets, the character takes on the role of social critic, using irony to call out the dangerous behaviour of people not taking the threat seriously or denouncing politicians who are leveraging the situation to put out racist messages or false claims.

The researchers have also observed that the account maintains little interaction with other users. When it does reach out, it does so to up the humour or when users have a significant following. "There's a relevance-based strategy of self-promotion going on here," Roig explained. The account interacts only every so often with official channels, such as WHO or the Spanish government, to which the researcher said: "There's an interest in maintaining a certain distance between serious and humorous accounts; it's a form of self-protection." Additionally, in response to the situation's evident gravity in recent weeks, the account's attitude has shifted towards the side of cautiousness, to which the UOC professor said: "It’s tweeting less each day and the tweets are highly restrained, so as to avoid backlash against its black humour. Whereas the account used to speak more freely about the infections, it's currently avoiding the topic."

The phenomenon's impact has been so great that, from the onset, it has inspired the creation of a plethora of other fictitious characters related to the pandemic and other diseases. And so it is that accounts breathing life into the common cold, potential drugs against the coronavirus and even toilet paper have joined Twitter, speaking amongst themselves and with the @CoronaVid19 user. Antoni Roig and Sandra Martorell have counted over 200 accounts like this and plan to study their development and relationships with other accounts as well.

Roig said: "Stories have always had an important role in shaping our understanding of the world, our ways of communicating and our empathy towards others. Thanks to technology and social media, they’ve become omnipresent". "In the future, this will be one of the sources we'll use to understand and tell the story of the 2020 coronavirus," he concluded.

 

UOC R&I 

UOC research and innovation (R&I) is doing its part to tackle the current challenges facing 21-century global societies. To accomplish this, it studies the interaction between ICT and human activity, with a particular focus on e-learning and digital health. The more than 400 researchers and 47 research groups are coordinated through the UOC's seven faculties and three research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), the eLearn Center (eLC) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals and open knowledge are two of the strategic road maps guiding the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. For more information, visit research.uoc.edu.