With the COVID-19 pandemic upending life as we know it, researchers in West Virginia University’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences are taking quick action to study how people from Appalachia to Europe are responding to the pressure this crisis has placed on their communities.
Daniel Totzkay, an assistant professor of communication studies, recognizes that the spread of the coronavirus has led to extensive misinformation. While most of the recommendations, like teleworking and avoiding large crowds and public transportation, are appropriate for urban areas, these tactics are less relevant for rural areas.
“This study came together just as all of the stay-at-home orders went through, and especially at that time, there seemed to be so much competing information in the news and in our own social networks about what you should or shouldn’t do,” Totzkay said. “That continues today with an oversaturation of information on how serious COVID-19 is, what someone should do about it, how effective things are at protecting you and what is happening within the healthcare system.”
Supported by a National Science Foundation RAPID award, funding dedicated to quick-response projects supporting severe or urgent situations, he and his research team are responding to this gap by investigating how rural populations in Appalachia are adapting to this public health crisis.
“At every step of the way, I’ve thought, ‘What does this mean to people not in places like Seattle or New York City?’ So much of the media narrative is, rightfully, on the dire circumstances of these big cities that are hit hard. But especially with the nature of media today, that is the main message that gets broadcast to everyone,” Totzkay said. “While messages aimed at, say, New Yorkers to stay in their homes and not use the subway probably resonate, what happens when folks in Morgantown or in Braxton County hear those messages and see a very different situation? The main motivator was understanding and assuming measures like social distancing and limiting contact with public surfaces is important regardless of location but also wondering how people in more rural areas are responding.”
Totzkay, an expert in health communication, put together an interdisciplinary team of researchers from WVU to study Appalachia from a wide range of perspectives. These researchers include Shari Steinman (Psychology), Jamison Conley (Geography), Megan Dillow (Communication Studies), Alan Goodboy (Communication Studies), Matthew Jacobsmeier (Political Science) and Lynne Cossman (University of Texas at San Antonio).
Since the start of the stay-at-home orders, the team has been conducting a series of surveys of more than 700 Appalachian residents to measure their thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to COVID-19 and how they have changed over time. The residents represented 12 states and 25 counties in West Virginia. The researchers hoped to learn what attributes about people determine their perceptions of crisis recommendations and how they respond.
“It is not at all new to this pandemic that rural, or at least less urban areas, and especially Appalachia, are overlooked in the response to a health crisis, so it was important to take this opportunity to give Appalachia the focus it so deserves and to, hopefully, speak to the resilience of this region in,” Totzkay said. “I wanted to make sure that whatever takeaways come from this research directly speak to how the people of this region think and act to hopefully inform more nuanced action in the future when we inevitably face additional health crises.”
They learned that many people stopped taking precautions almost immediately after the stay-at-home orders went into effect. These decisions were primarily driven by their attitudes toward the order and the precautions and how they assessed their effectiveness.
“It’s clear that trust in institutions has been damaged, and the consequences of unclear and irrelevant public health messaging continue to be felt. Messaging around the pandemic did not resonate with Appalachians by and large,” Totzkay said. “Whether that is because they were just focusing on the wrong things or just failing to reflect the reality of what life looked like during the early months of the pandemic, the threat of COVID-19 and the utility of precautions like constant social distancing either did not resonate or did not seem necessary.”
While some national and regional data show that political affiliation often made a difference in these decisions, in Appalachia, those affiliations were only seen in the speed in which individuals stopped taking those measures.
“Whether someone was more liberal or more conservative only changed how fast they stopped taking precautions. Meaning, people who were more liberal decreased their precaution-taking more slowly than people who were more conservative, but they still stopped taking precautions as time went on,” Totzkay said. “These patterns were also the same when it came to looking to expert public health sources for information on the pandemic, which is also concerning since information and recommendations are constantly changing.”
Concerns about misinformation and disinformation continue to be a public health challenge for individuals living in the region.
“Without answers from the government and public health agencies – all of whom were probably rightfully focused solely on the hardest hit areas like New York – to the specific issues and experiences people are facing, people began to look elsewhere. This speaks to the continued need for local and relevant messaging as crises like the COVID-19 pandemic unfold and now continue.”
– Daniel Totzkay, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies
“Without answers from the government and public health agencies – all of whom were probably rightfully focused solely on the hardest hit areas like New York – to the specific issues and experiences people are facing, people began to look elsewhere,” Totzkay said. “This speaks to the continued need for local and relevant messaging as crises like the COVID-19 pandemic unfold and now continue. For instance, people’s personal social networks were relied on for relevant information more and more as time went on, and that was related to less precaution-taking and decreased perceived seriousness.”
Totzkay and his team stress the importance of not only accurate and clear communication but also local public health messages, especially as planning continues for COVID-19 vaccine messaging.
“The data show the impact of ambiguous or inconsistent messaging from expert sources. You will probably lose your audience’s attention pretty fast, and that can have dire consequences on the types of precautionary behavior they take as a crisis like the one we are in unfolds,” Totzkay said. “We are helping to identify what topics we should focus on in our public health messaging. What’s important now is to approach future messaging from a point of empathy while also asserting clear and credible information.”
As political scientist Jay Krehbiel was scanning the news in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his colleagues were struck by numerous accounts of political leaders around the world pursuing unprecedented, and in some cases anti-democratic, policies in the name of confronting the crisis.
“From Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closing of the country’s courts to the rapid expansion of executive power by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, we were observing what appeared to us a potential side effect of the virus: the undermining of democratic norms and institutions,” Krehbiel said.
Also supported by an NSF RAPID award as well as the Eberly College’s Walter J. and Gail B. Woolwine Faculty Travel Fund, Krehbiel and colleagues Michael Nelson (Pennsylvania State University) and Amanda Driscoll (Florida State University) set out to examine how citizens’ proximity to the crisis undermines their faith in democracy.
“Our goal is to understand how a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic affects citizens’ support for democratic norms like the rule of law,” Krehbiel said. “We hope to learn how the pressing crisis is already changing their attitudes and how its effect evolves as the pandemic progresses.”
Since April, the research team has been surveying citizens from the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany and Spain about their levels of concern related to contracting COVID-19.
“But if we want to more fully understand the extent of the threat COVID-19 poses to democracy, we need to assess whether, and if so why, citizens themselves are responding to the crisis in ways that create opportunities for those threats to democracy to be realized.”
– Jay Krehbiel, Assistant Professor of Political Science
“We’ve already seen leaders in many countries take steps that in normal times would have been seen as illegal and undemocratic, with some observers going so far as to declare the virus a direct threat to democracy as we know it,” Krehbiel said. “But if we want to more fully understand the extent of the threat COVID-19 poses to democracy, we need to assess whether, and if so why, citizens themselves are responding to the crisis in ways that create opportunities for those threats to democracy to be realized.”
Early findings from Germany show that when comparing the level of concern in April and May to late July 2020, most individuals remain just as concerned as they were in the spring. However, there are signs of a widespread weakening of concern across geographic, political and demographic groups.
“It appears that a bit of complacency is seeping into German society,” Krehbiel said. “It’s not just limited to the young or politically right wing.”
The team also asked the German citizens for their thoughts about mask requirements. While most German citizens support the mandate, their feelings about accountability and enforcement varied.
“In particular, we looked at partisan leaning and found that people tend to support weaker punishment for their own party’s leaders than for leaders of parties they dislike,” Krehbiel said. “However, this difference went away for those most concerned by the virus. So, those concerned about the coronavirus supported punishing their own party’s leaders just as much as a disliked party’s members.”
The team will continue conducting surveys through early spring 2021, and analysis of the other countries’ surveys is still ongoing.
Combating the spread of disinformation
Political scientist Erik Herron is continuing research from his August 2019 Minerva Research Initiative Award, which focused on how Russia creates and exploits vulnerabilities in its neighbors.
“Our main focus has been civilian services, like healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for health providers worldwide and has also created an opening for disinformation to proliferate,” said Herron, the Eberly Family Professor of Political Science. “It's important to understand how the crisis is being exploited to better respond now and prepare for crises in the future.”
The new project, supported by the U.S. Department of Defense and Walter J. and Gail B. Woolwine Faculty Travel Fund, seeks to uncover how governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and how disinformation has affected the way citizens evaluate their risk.
“We hope to better understand how the pandemic is affecting citizens' perceptions of their country's capacity to provide essential services and how disinformation distorts their perceptions,” Herron said.
In April and May 2020, Herron and his team from the Minerva Research Initiative surveyed citizens from three post-Soviet countries, Ukraine, Estonia and the Republic of Georgia, to assess how disinformation affects their attitudes and behaviors. They also hoped to learn about how these governments are implementing pandemic policies and how citizens are responding to them.
“It is critical to learn about how this crisis is being exploited in real-time. All over the world, governments have taken different approaches to the pandemic, but these three countries face additional challenges due to their geopolitical situation. It can not only help mitigate problems of disinformation right now, but it can help build defenses against future disinformation efforts.”
– Erik Herron, Eberly Family Professor of Political Science
“It is critical to learn about how this crisis is being exploited in real-time. All over the world, governments have taken different approaches to the pandemic, but these three countries face additional challenges due to their geopolitical situation,” Herron said. “It can not only help mitigate problems of disinformation right now, but it can help build defenses against future disinformation efforts.”
In their research so far, they found that in the early stages of the pandemic all three countries acted quickly to mitigate the threat, with just one serious early outbreak in Estonia.
“Citizens in these countries largely believed in the efficacy of good health practices such as washing hands and surfaces, but in some cases, they also believed false information about the coronavirus: that it could be prevented by drinking vodka or visiting a sauna,” Herron said. “Some citizens were also susceptible to disinformation, accepting the idea that the virus was a bioweapon. For example, around one-third of Georgians believed that COVID-19 was a bioweapon produced by China, contradicting the evidence from the scientific community.”
The citizens in these countries also seem to reward governments and leaders who responded effectively to the crisis.
“The Republic of Georgia's early pandemic response included a wide range of national measures designed to reduce transmission of the disease. Thus far, its infection and death rates are quite low,” Herron said. “Citizens rate the government's actions positively, with 78 percent saying that the national government's response was good or very good. This bodes well for the current governing party as Georgia approaches national parliamentary elections in October 2020.”
As the project continues, Herron and his team plan to conduct another round of surveys to assess how attitudes and behaviors continue to change over time.
“Understanding how vulnerable countries have attempted to identify, contain and mitigate this threat and what strategies have worked can help us better navigate these kinds of challenges now and in the future,” he said.
While the Woolwine Fund typically supports faculty travel for international research, the family – including Gail Woolwine (BA Political Science ’69) and Jim Woolwine (BA Political Science ’68, MPA ’70) – is committed to ensuring these time-sensitive projects can be fulfilled even while travel is impossible.
"Gail and I are pleased to support research and scholarship in the international arena, as we hope the knowledge that is gained will enhance the learning experience for WVU students," Jim Woolwine said. "The world is now a very small place, and, as we see from the fallout from the COVID-19 virus, global networks and international cooperation are both critical and essential."