Information sharing practices during the COVID-19 pandemic: A case study about face masks.
This article contributes an empirical analysis of information sharing practices on Twitter relating to the use of face masks in the context of COVID-19. Behavioural changes, such as the use of face masks, are often influenced by people's knowledge and perceptions, which in turn can be affected by the information available to them. Face masks were not recommended for use by the UK public at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to developments in scientific understanding, the guidance changed and by the end of 2020 they were mandatory on public transport and in shops. This research examines tweets in this longitudinal context and, therefore, provides novel insights into the dynamics of crisis communication in an ongoing crisis event with emerging scientific evidence. Specifically, analysis of the content of tweets, external resources most frequently shared, and users sharing information are considered. The conclusions contribute to developing understanding of the digital information ecology and provide practical insights for crisis communicators. Firstly, the analysis shows changes in the frequency of tweets about the topic correspond with key guidance and policy changes. These are, therefore, points in time official channels of information need to utilise the public's information seeking and sharing practices. Secondly, due to changes in face mask guidance and policy, the current literature on digital information ecology is insufficient for capturing the dynamic nature of a long-term ongoing crisis event. Challenges can arise due to the prolonged circulation of out-of-date information, i.e. not strategic misinformation, nor "mis"-information at all, which can have serious ramifications for crisis communication practitioners. Thirdly, the role of traditional media and other journalism/broadcasting platforms in shaping conversations is evident, as is the potential for scientific organisations' and individual people's Twitter user accounts. This plurality of contributors needs to be acknowledged and understood to inform crisis communication strategies.