Researching the pandemic

by Eszter Hargittai on May 1, 2020

As a social scientist who studies digital media uses, it seemed like I couldn’t sit back and watch the pandemic unfold without throwing myself into a related research project. I held off for the first week of our lockdown in Switzerland, but after several conversations with members of my research group about whether they were interested (I made clear it was completely optional not knowing how everyone would cope with the situation), we decided to take the plunge. Now, 5.5 weeks later, we have survey data from three countries (USA [n=1,374; Apr 4-8], Italy [n=982; Apr 17-18], Switzerland [n=1,350; fielded in three languages; Apr 17-24],) and have started putting some of our results out there with lots of publications in the works.

We explore numerous relevant domains from how people are feeling during the pandemic (about their home situation, their worries) to how much they understand the health aspects of the virus, where they are getting information about Covid, how they are using social media related to it, whether their work situation has changed, their confidence in various players handling the situation, and more.

Today, I share with you a piece that Elissa Redmiles and I co-authored in Scientific American about whether Americans would be willing to install a Covid-tracking app and how this may vary by who is distributing the app. Elissa is a top-notch expert in privacy and security issues, and we are now working on additional surveys that dig deeper into the question of app take-up (she’s started posting some of those results on her Twitter feed).

We find that two-thirds of Americans would be willing to install “a tracking app that could help slow the spread of the Coronavirus in your community and reduce the lockdown period [..] knowing that it would collect your location data and information about your health status.” But who is distributing the app matters. (See more in the piece.)

Compared to the 66% of Americans who are willing to install such an app, the figure is 72% among the Swiss, and 78% among Italians. There are significant differences in willingness if “the federal government” distributes the app (US: 20%, CH: 54%, IT: 53%). More on the Swiss case in a forthcoming oped with which I’ll update this post when it’s out. [UPDATE (posted May 2, 2020): The Swiss piece is out in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung here. (Click here to see it in its newspaper form.)]

My team is now working on another US survey to field next week (in addition to surveys with Elissa I mention above). It’s been fascinating doing research on the pandemic, but also exhausting. Nonetheless, we made the right decision by taking the plunge. Researching this situation makes me feel like I’m contributing in the way I can: exploring the role of digital media in how people are coping with this insane situation.

A big shout-out to my employer, the University of Zurich, for supporting this work!