Like Zika, The Public Is Heading To Wikipedia During The COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

Farah Qaiser at Forbes: “A new study out in the PLOS Computational Biology journal shows that public attention in the midst of the Zika virus epidemic was largely driven by media coverage, rather than the epidemic’s magnitude or extent, highlighting the importance of mass media coverage when it comes to public health. This is reflected in the ongoing COVID-19 situation, where to date, the main 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic Wikipedia page has over ten million page views.

The 2015-2016 Zika virus epidemic began in Northeastern Brazil, and spread across South and North America. The Zika virus was largely spread by infected Aedes mosquitoes, where symptoms included a fever, headache, itching, and muscle pain. It could also be transmitted between pregnant women and their fetuses, causing microcephaly, where a baby’s head was much smaller than expected.

Similar to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, the media coverage around the Zika virus epidemic shaped public opinion and awareness.

“We knew that it was relevant, and very important, for public health to understand how the media and news shapes the attention of [the] public during epidemic outbreaks,” says Michele Tizzoni, a principal investigator based at the Institute for Scientific Interchange (ISI) Foundation. …

Today, the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic Wikipedia page has around ten million page views. As per Toby Negrin, the Wikimedia Foundation’s Chief Product Officer, this page has been edited over 12K times by nearly 1,900 different editors. The page is currently semi-protected – a common practice for Wikipedia pages that are relevant to current news stories.

In an email, Negrin shared that “the day after the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11th, the main English Wikipedia article about the pandemic had nearly 1.1 million views, an increase of nearly 30% from the day before the WHO’s announcement (on March 10th, it had just over 809,000 views).” This is similar to the peaks in Wikipedia attention observed when official announcements took place during the Zika virus epidemic.

In addition, initial data from Tizzoni’s research group shows that the lockdown in Italy has resulted in a 50% or more decrease in movement between provinces. Similarly, Negrin notes that since the national lockdown in Italy, “total pageviews from Italy to all Wikimedia projects increased by nearly 30% over where they were at the same time last year.”

With increased public awareness during epidemics, tackling misinformation is critical. This remains important at Wikipedia.

“When it comes to documenting current events on Wikipedia, volunteers take even greater care to get the facts right,” stated Negrin, and pointed out that there is a page dedicated to misinformation during this pandemic, which has received over half a million views….(More)”.