Updated Sep 14, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Axios-NewsWhip 2020 attention tracker: We're numb to the coronavirus

Data: Newswhip; Chart: Axios Visuals

We're over COVID even if it isn't over us.

Why it matters: Six months into the pandemic, online engagement around coronavirus stories has dropped off markedly and continues to reach new lows even as the pandemic continues, according to data from NewsWhip provided exclusively to Axios.

By the numbers: Interactions (likes, comments, shares) on stories about the coronavirus have fallen 88% since March, 62% since July and 36% even from the August average.

  • Google searches for the coronavirus have descended from a peak in mid-March and are now roughly where they were on Feb. 25 — well before the virus upended life the the U.S, — according to Google Trends data.

Between the lines: Even as the virus itself began to spread largely unchecked across almost the entire country in late June, the uptick in engagement was modest — another sign that Americans had gotten used to the virus.

The big picture: Throughout the pandemic, partisan anger — and not pertinent public health information — has fueled stories related to the virus on social media.

  • The top term associated with "coronavirus" on social media in the last 3 months is "trump," according to data from Keyhole.
  • Revelations from the new Bob Woodward book set off another round of politically oriented engagement on the virus late this week. Four of Wednesday's top five election-related stories were about Trump admitting that he played down the severity of the coronavirus, according to NewsWhip data.

The top two stories on social media in April were 'Trump suggests 'injection' of disinfectant to beat coronavirus and 'clean the lungs'" (NBC News, 6.5 million interactions) and "Coronavirus hype biggest political hoax in history" (Washington Times — 6.1 million).

  • The highest in May: "Trump announces that houses of worship are 'essential', calls on governors to open them up" (Fox News — 5.8 million)
  • June: "Wearing A Mask Is A Sign Of Mutual Respect" (Forbes — 4.8 million)
  • July: "HHS confirms coronavirus hospital data will now be sent to DC instead of CDC" (CNN — 3.7 million)
  • September: "Pelosi used shuttered San Francisco hair salon for blow-out, owner calls it 'slap in the face'" (Fox News — 4.9 million)

The bottom line: Despite the downturn in interest, as long as the coronavirus is a central feature of everyday life, it continues to hamper Trump's re-election bid. His 39% approval rating on handling the virus is a 10-point drop from early April and sits below his overall approval rating (43%).

Data: Newswhip; Graphic: Axios Visuals — Note: Hover over the graphic on desktop to see weekly articles and interactions for candidates and issues.


Our 2020 attention tracker is based on data from NewsWhip exclusively provided to Axios as part of a project that will regularly update throughout the 2020 campaign.

Why this tracker matters: The data on interactions — including likes, comments and shares — highlights an important, but under-appreciated element of an election: the ability to see beyond our own social feeds and understand the broader universe playing out of how candidates and issues are moving the minds of voters.

  1. It measures enthusiasm in a way that traditional polling does not.
  2. The sample size taken from these social media platforms is massive.
  3. Social media is powered by emotion-driven content, and emotional responses are likely to be aligned with a voter's true beliefs in a way that can be masked in polling.

While the volume of interactions does not gauge the sentiment of the reactions, the ability to generate reach allows a candidate to expand the universe of potential voters.

  • Bots also cannot be ignored, and we will point out in this space if there are documented instances of bot activity for certain candidates or issues.

Methodology: This project measures the number of social media interactions generated on stories published about the 2020 candidates and issues.

  • Interactions are calculated from reactions, comments and shares on those stories on Facebook as well as the number of shares from more than 300,000 influential Twitter accounts and retweets and likes on those posts.
  • Tracked published stories come from a defined universe of more than 450,000 domains.
  • A story registers for a candidate or issue if the keyword is mentioned in the headline, summary or URL of the story.
    • Our search format for candidates looks like: "Joe Biden" OR ("Biden" AND ("President" OR "2020" OR "election" OR "Democrats" OR "primary")).
    • For issues, we use a keyword tree for related terms.

See past editions of the tracker here.

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