The COVID-19 pandemic is the first pandemic where social media platforms relayed information on a large scale, enabling an “infodemic” of conflicting information which undermined the global response to the pandemic. Understanding how the information circulated and evolved on social media platforms is essential for planning future public health campaigns. This study investigated what types of themes about COVID-19 were most viewed on YouTube during the first 8 months of the pandemic, and how COVID-19 themes progressed over this period.
We analyzed top-viewed YouTube COVID-19-related videos in English from December 1, 2019 to August 16, 2020 with an open inductive content analysis. We coded 536 videos associated with 1.1 billion views across the study period. East Asian countries were the first to report the virus, while most of the top-viewed videos in English were from the US. Videos from straight news outlets dominated the top-viewed videos throughout the outbreak, and public health authorities contributed the fewest. Although straight news was the dominant COVID-19 video source with various types of themes, its viewership per video was similar to that for entertainment news and YouTubers after March.
We found, first, that collective public attention to the COVID-19 pandemic on YouTube peaked around March 2020, before the outbreak peaked, and flattened afterwards despite a spike in worldwide cases. Second, more videos focused on prevention early on, but videos with political themes increased through time. Third, regarding prevention and control measures, masking received much less attention than lockdown and social distancing in the study period.
Our study suggests that a transition of focus from science to politics on social media intensified the COVID-19 infodemic and may have weakened mitigation measures during the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is recommended that authorities should consider co-operating with reputable social media influencers to promote health campaigns and improve health literacy. In addition, given high levels of globalization of social platforms and polarization of users, tailoring communication towards different digital communities is likely to be essential.