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05.18.20 - NSF Funding for COVID-19 Research

Gian Mario Maggio


The National Science Foundation has awarded a $98,000 Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to CALIT2 affiliate Carter Butts, professor of sociology, statistics and electrical engineering & computer science. Butts, who manages CALIT2’s Networks, Computation and Social Dynamics Lab, will use the grant to study risk communication during the COVID-19 pandemic and expand his research into developing effective social messaging guidance for public health, emergency management and government agencies.

Public health and emergency management agencies are on the front lines of informing and educating the public about virus transmission and prevention. In response to COVID-19, their mission demands they provide the public with immediate, accurate and credible information.

Social media – with its ability to quickly deploy messaging and near-universal access – has increasingly become an integral communication tool for public health and safety agencies, although understanding how to best apply these online platforms in urgent situations remains a challenge.

Butts's prior research work at CALIT2, with co-investigator Jeannette Sutton from the University of Kentucky, explored Twitter communication during Zika and Ebola outbreaks. The two discovered that distinct patterns, which utilized a combination of content, style and structure features, were key in increasing the likelihood a message would be shared among the public.

In this project, also centered at CALIT2, Butts and Sutton plan to analyze official communication and public interaction on the Twitter accounts of state, local and national public health and emergency management agencies. They will use research methods that help to identify the patterns and relationships between different communication strategies.  

Their primary focus is on message retransmission and engagement. This requires establishing how many people see an original online message, ascertaining whether the message garners enough trust to be shared and if it is seen often enough to influence public behavior.

"COVID-19 poses a distinct risk profile, with a disruption potential to the American public not seen by any threat within decades," Butts said. "By establishing evidence-based guidance for agencies to effectively warn, inform and engage with the general public during an emerging pandemic, we hope to provide the tools they need to mount effective interventions that save lives, reduce economic losses and protect the security of the nation against health threats.”

– Sharon Henry