Automated measurement of attitudes towards social distancing using social media: A COVID-19 case study

Keywords: COVID-19, Social Distancing, Social Media, Tweets, Coronavirus Infections and Consequences, Measuring Attitudes, Physical Distancing, Sentiment Analysis


The COVID-19 outbreak has focused attention on the use of social distancing as the primary defence against community infection. Forcing social animals to maintain physical distance has presented significant challenges for health authorities and law enforcement. Anecdotal media reports suggest widespread dissatisfaction with social distancing as a policy, yet there is little prior work aimed at measuring community acceptance of social distancing. In this paper, we propose a new approach to measuring attitudes towards social distancing by using social media and sentiment analysis. Over a four-month period, we found that 82.5 percent of tweets were in favour of social distancing. The results indicate a widespread acceptance of social distancing in a selected community. We examine options for estimating the optimal (minimal) social distance required at scale, and the implications for securing widespread community support and for appropriate crisis management during emergency health events.

Author Biographies

A.S.M. Kayes, La Trobe University

Dr Kayes is currently a Lecturer in Cybersecurity at LaTrobe University, Australia. He received his PhD in Software Engineering from Swinburne University of Technology, Australia in 2014. He worked at CQU and Swinburne as Lead Lecturer, Lecturer and Tutor (2014-2017). In 2017, he joined as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at La Trobe University. His research interests include security and context-aware access control, information modeling, big data integration, IoT streaming data, cloud and fog computing, cybersecurity, social media and privacy, and context-aware techniques for hackers' behavior and mindset. He is currently supervising 7 PhD students in the broader domain of big data and cybersecurity.

He published his research work in WoS journals and A-ranked conference proceedings, such as Journals (The Computer Journal, Information Systems, Computing, FGCS, Journal of Big Data, First Monday, and IJWGS) and Conferences (CAiSE, CoopIS, ICSOC, WISE, and TrustCom). He served on the research tracks and review panels of several prestigious journals and conferences, as editor, track chair, session chair, technical PC member and organizer. He is a member of the Australian Computer Society and IEEE.

Md. Saiful Islam, Griffith University

I am Dr. Saiful Islam, born and brought up in Bangladesh. Currently, I am a Lecturer (Big Data Analytics) in the School of Information and Communication Technology at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia. I also hold an adjunct research fellow position in Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. Before joining in Griffith, I was a Research Fellow in the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, La Trobe University, Australia from May 2016 to Jan 2017 and Research Associate in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Swinburne from Nov 2013 to Apr 2016. I received PhD in Computer Science and Software Engineering from Swinburne University of Technology in Feb 2014. I received FICT Dean’s Award Research Excellence (2nd prize), Swinburne University of Technology in 2013 based on my ICDE 2013 paper 'On Answering WHY-NOT questions in reverse skyline queries'. I have also received the best paper award in ACM SSDBM 2017 for the paper 'Computing Influence of a Product through Uncertain Reverse Skyline'.

Paul A. Watters, La Trobe University

Dr Watters is a leading expert in cybersecurity. He began his first R&D role in security in 2002, joining the CSIRO's Networking Applications and Technologies (NAT) Group, and leading a programme in secure, distributed storage.

After moving to Macquarie University, Dr Watters established the first cybercrime research laboratory in Australasia in 2006, in partnership with Dr Stephen McCombie, with the support of National Australia Bank (NAB). Dr Watters and Dr McCombie went on to win Australia's first competitive research grant in phishing (ARC Linkage), with Professor Josef Pieprzyk. His work at Macquarie led to improvements in threat detection and response at NAB. He also worked as an expert witness, and developed the first cybercrime and cyber terrorism course at an Australian university.

After a stint dealing with security and privacy of electronic health records at the Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom, Dr Watters moved to the University of Ballarat in 2008, to become the first Research Director of the Internet Commerce Security Laboratory (ICSL), a partnership between Westpac, IBM, the State Government of Victoria, and the Australian Federal Police (AFP). The ICSL's goal was to build capability in the cybercrime field, and to make Victoria the state of choice to undertake this type of work. In addition to numerous research publications, and skilled graduates who now protect Australia's cyber frontline, the ICSL also produced significant outcomes for its research partners in the areas of threat mitigation (phishing, malware, identity theft, scams, piracy, child exploitation) and intelligence gathering. Dr Watters undertook consultancies for numerous external clients, including the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT), the Attorney General's Department (AGD) and Google. While on sabbatical with the AFP, he developed an approach to detecting drug deals online.

In 2013, Dr Watters took up a Professorship in IT at Massey University in New Zealand. He continued his work in online threats, especially focusing on advertising as a vector for malware delivery and social harms. He also won two Callaghan Innovation grants to develop new algorithms for data analytics. He partnered with NGOs such as End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT) to systematically examine the links between film piracy and the proliferation of child abuse material online.

In 2015, Dr Watters also became an Adjunct Professor at Unitec Institute of Technology, the home of New Zealand's first cyber security research centre. In recognition of his track record combating child abuse material online, he received an ARC Discovery grant in 2015.

Alex Ng, La Trobe University

Dr. Alex Ng is a Lecturer in Cybersecurity at La Trobe University, Australia. His research interests span the fields of blockchain security, blockchain-based B2B collaboration, AI-based security defence for intelligent city, malware detection and prevention mechanisms.

Humayun Kayesh, Griffith University

Mr. Humayun Kayesh is a PhD student in the Griffith School of Information and Communication Technology. His research interests include natural language processing, data analytics and deep learning.

How to Cite
Kayes, A., Islam, M. S., Watters, P. A., Ng, A., & Kayesh, H. (2020). Automated measurement of attitudes towards social distancing using social media: A COVID-19 case study. First Monday, 25(11).