Facebook polls provide quick insight into people’s behaviors during COVID-19 pandemic

How did people change their behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic? In an article recently published in EPJ Data Science, Daniela Perrotta and her co-authors illustrate how timely data collection through Facebook, along with appropriate survey designs and statistical methods, can help answer this question.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit our lives in unprecedented ways.

lack of data makes it difficult to assess population responses during outbreaks

In an effort to curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2, governments have implemented a variety of so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), such as home support measures, physical distancing regulations, restraints on non-essential movements. and recommendations for good hand hygiene and the use of face masks.

While universal adoption of public health recommendations and adherence to NPIs are essential to minimize the burden of COVID-19, this is only possible to the extent that people are prepared to change their behavior and comply with NPI recommended or mandatory.

Assessing whether people are actually changing their behavior and understanding behavioral choices, barriers and factors within a population is therefore essential to increase situational awareness and inform interventions.

However, the lack of data makes it difficult to assess the responses of populations during outbreaks. This can interfere with effective communication strategies and evidence-based decision making.

Nonetheless, over the past year, we have witnessed an increasing effort in collecting primary data and exploiting alternative data sources to obtain information to combat the global epidemic.

we provide information from a total of 71,612 completed questionnaires

In this work, we present our efforts to collect key data on the behavioral responses of populations to the pandemic.

This is based on the COVID-19 survey on health behaviors (CHBS), a transnational online survey we conducted via Facebook at a crucial time when the first wave of the pandemic was sweeping across Europe and North America.

We took advantage of Facebook’s advertising platform to serve ad hoc ads among Facebook users and draw their attention to our survey.

This approach allowed us to quickly and continuously reach a large number of survey respondents in several countries at the same time.

Participants recruited from Facebook are not necessarily representative of the general population and it is essential to care about who is represented in the data to ensure that the conclusions drawn are valid.

In our analysis, we ensure this by appropriately reweighting the respondent samples in observable central characteristics such as age and sex.

On this basis, we provide information from a total of 71,612 completed questionnaires collected between March 13 and April 19, 2020 in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, UK United and the United States.

Compared to other studies, our survey stood out for its speed, transnational and comparative nature, and population coverage, which allowed us to provide important information on COVID-19.

This includes information on people’s perceptions of the threat, adoption of preventative behaviors, and confidence in governments and health systems in their preparedness to face the pandemic.

we have seen a rapid adoption of face protection masks when masks were not yet mandatory

Our results show, for example, that women are more likely to perceive the pandemic as a very serious threat and to adopt and comply with public health recommendations (Figure 1).

Since the case fatality rate for COVID-19 is considerably higher in men, this data is relevant for policymakers in the design of communication campaigns, which may need to be gender-based in order to tackle this difference in attitudes and behavior.

Figure 1. Behavior adoption rate by country and sex. The adoption rate is defined as the weighted proportion of respondents who have adopted a given behavior in relation to the pre-pandemic period.

© The authors

Likewise, the age-specific trends we observe in perceiving threats and adopting preventative behaviors may inform future communication campaigns.

For example, we observe that younger people perceive a high threat to their family, while older adults perceive a high threat to themselves (Figure 2).

This is consistent with the evidence that older adults are at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19 infection.

Figure 2. Relationship between the threat of COVID-19 perceived by women (y axis) and men (x axis), where the colors indicate the different levels of society and the sizes indicate the age of the respondents. Perceived threat data points are averages of normalized Likert scale values ​​in the range 0-1.

© The authors

Additionally, the fact that we collected data from multiple countries simultaneously allowed us to capture the differences between countries that were at different stages of the pandemic and with different control strategies in place.

For example, we saw a rapid adoption of face protection masks in the early days, when masks were not yet mandatory, but it varies greatly from country to country due to different NPIs.

In conclusion, our study helps close the gap in behavioral data and provides important information to improve our understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic progresses with new waves of infections, this information is essential for policymakers to increase situational awareness and guide the decision-making process.

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