Ebola and Localized Blame on Social Media: Analysis of Twitter and Facebook Conversations During the 2014–2015 Ebola Epidemic

Roy, M., Moreau, N., Rousseau, C., Mercier, A., Wilson, A., & Atlani-Duault, L. (2019)

Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-019-09635-8 | 1-24

This study aimed to analyze main groups accused on social media of causing or spreading the 2014–2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. In this analysis, blame is construed as a vehicle of meaning through which the lay public makes sense of an epidemic, and through which certain classes of people become “figures of blame”. Data was collected from Twitter and Facebook using key word extraction, then categorized thematically. Our findings indicate an overall proximate blame tendency: blame was typically cast on “near-by” figures, namely national governments, and less so on “distant” figures, such as generalized figures of otherness (“Africans”, global health authorities, global elites). Our results also suggest an evolution of online blame. In the early stage of the epidemic, blame directed at the affected populations was more prominent. However, during the peak of the outbreak, the increasingly perceived threat of inter-continental spread was accompanied by a progressively proximal blame tendency, directed at figures with whom the social media users had pre-existing biopolitical frustrations. Our study proposes that pro-active and on-going analysis of blame circulating in social media can usefully help to guide communications strategies, making them more responsive to public perceptions.