Too far to care? measuring public attention and fear for ebola using twitter

Liza G.G. Van Lent*, Hande Sungur, Florian A. Kunneman, Bob Van De Velde, Enny Das

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: In 2014, the world was startled by a sudden outbreak of Ebola. Although Ebola infections and deaths occurred almost exclusively in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, few potential Western cases, in particular, caused a great stir among the public in Western countries. Objective: This study builds on the construal level theory to examine the relationship between psychological distance to an epidemic and public attention and sentiment expressed on Twitter. Whereas previous research has shown the potential of social media to assess real-time public opinion and sentiment, generalizable insights that further the theory development lack. Methods: Epidemiological data (number of Ebola infections and fatalities) and media data (tweet volume and key events reported in the media) were collected for the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and Twitter content from the Netherlands was coded for (1) expressions of fear for self or fear for others and (2) psychological distance of the outbreak to the tweet source. Longitudinal relations were compared using vector error correction model (VECM) methodology. Results: Analyses based on 4500 tweets revealed that increases in public attention to Ebola co-occurred with severe world events related to the epidemic, but not all severe events evoked fear. As hypothesized, Web-based public attention and expressions of fear responded mainly to the psychological distance of the epidemic. A chi-square test showed a significant positive relation between proximity and fear: 22=103.2 (P<.001). Public attention and fear for self in the Netherlands showed peaks when Ebola became spatially closer by crossing the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Fear for others was mostly predicted by the social distance to the affected parties. Conclusions: Spatial and social distance are important predictors of public attention to worldwide crisis such as epidemics. These factors need to be taken into account when communicating about human tragedies.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere193
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Distance perception
  • Epidemics
  • Fear
  • Psychological theory
  • Social media


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