Americans' interest in seeking information about the novel coronavirus online spiked the day after the first case of COVID-19 was announced in their state but decreased back to baseline levels in less than two weeks, according to a study by researchers at Indiana University.
Ana Bento, co-corresponding author on the study and an assistant professor in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, said that knowing more about the public's information-seeking behavior during a crisis will help government and health officials improve communication strategies as this pandemic evolves or as future health crises arise.
Bento and her colleagues -- an interdisciplinary team of public health, computer science and policy experts -- looked at Google Trends data to measure daily searches for keywords such as "coronavirus symptoms," "quarantine" and "hand sanitizer" in a given state. They also looked at searches for keywords pertaining to coronavirus conspiracy theories and hoaxes to provide a control group for their results.
Their findings, published in the scientific journal PNAS, suggest that the disclosure of information by the government does help focus public attention on a crisis. Specifically, searches for "coronavirus" increased by 36 percent on the day immediately following the first case announcement in a given area. However, internet searches for the term reverted to the baseline in less than two weeks. In the days leading up to the first case announcements of COVID-19, they found no observable trend in online search behavior.
Bento said that overall, people were initially most interested in searching for information about COVID-19 symptoms and safety measures.
"Because it's the beginning of the pandemic, we see that people are not really looking at testing," she said. "They are more interested in what coronavirus is and how they can immediately protect themselves."