At the same time omicron has quickly overtaken the delta and become the dominant species of Covid-19 in the US and many other countries, it is also spreading on social media.
People are publishing about the omicron variant much more than they were reporting about the delta variant in a similar period of time, according to an exclusive report for Recode collected by the media intelligence company Zignal Labs.
Compared to delta, omicron was mentioned about six times more often on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Reddit in the three weeks after the WHO first identified each strain as a variant of concern. In the three weeks since the CDC identified each strain as a variant of concern (which came later than the WHO), omicron was mentioned 2.2 times more often on the same social media channels.
“People are talking more and faster about the omicron than the delta,” said Jennifer Granston, director of user and head of insights at Zignal Labs. “It really happened, very quickly.”
There are also signs that people are not only publishing more, but are looking for more information about the omicron than about the delta. On Google, the search rate for “omicron” has already far exceeded those for “delta” at its peak earlier this year by about 1.5 times higher, according to Google Trends.
Social media analysts have offered some potential explanations for this increase: The virus is spreading faster than the delta variant, meaning more people are turning to social media to ask questions and share their concerns; and people are more comfortable revealing their Covid-19 status publicly than before in the pandemic, so they are share their online test results.
Omicron is also suitable for more discussions “purely from a meme perspective,” said Amanda Brennan, senior trend director at social media agency XX Artists and a former “meme librarian” in Tumblr.
Brennan described the prevalence of a kind of “defeatist vibration” and “humor on the gallows” in the memes she followed about the omicron, which is “much deeper than the delta.” While people are fed up with the seemingly endless cycle of infection; they may also be more willing to joke about it now that the virus is better understood.
Then there’s the New York media effect.
Since the end of November, when omicron first became a concerned variant, about 2 percent of all tweets about that variant have been mentioned by New York, according to Zignal Labs. The proliferation of journalists, influencers and other types of media with a large number of followers who publish about this variant has helped Omicron earn a nickname. “media variant. ” Many New Yorkers posted pictures on social media that went viral and depicted people lined up around city blocks to get tested on Covid-19 or TikTok compilations of screenshots from their group texts showing friends warning each other of their Covid-19 statuses tuned to the roar of pop music.
Despite its popularity in New York, many of the most frequently shared tweets mentioning Omicron so far have not been from New York, but from outside the United States, Zignal said. The most shared tweet from December 17, according to Zignal, was written in Thai, warning people to take Omicron seriously.
All in all, heightened and early talk about omicron on social media can be both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, early talks about omicron could serve as a warning to the public to be more careful as this highly contagious variant begins to spread.
But the onslaught of chatting on social media can also provide disinformation about the option to enter online discourse, which has been a recurring problem since the pandemic began in early 2020.
“One thing we strive to really look out for is to improve certain programs or goals, because when you have these big discussions and so many eyeballs, it’s very easy for people to get the message across,” said Granston of Zignal Labs.
As we end up in 2021 facing this new wave of omicron, it seems in many ways that we are back on vacation in 2020. As people struggle with this feeling of deja vu, it makes sense to talk more online, trying to understand how to adapt a new norm that is constantly changing.
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