The Hydroxychloroquine Twitter War: A case study examining polarization in science communication


  • Alessandro R. Marcon University of Alberta
  • Timothy Caulfield University of Alberta



COVID-19; Twitter; Social Media; Misinformation


The COVID-19 pandemic has created communication challenges exacerbated by the circulation of misinformation and the politicization of science. The case of hydroxychloroquine is an illustrative example, with the drug being aggressively promoted as a cure even while emerging evidence demonstrated the contrary. This research analyzed how hydroxychloroquine discussions took place on Twitter from 21 to 28 April 2020, a key period in developments around the drug. We collected, in real time, tweets with “hydroxychloroquine” over this period, which resulted in a dataset of nearly one million tweets from over 350,000 Twitter accounts. Our content analysis provides specific details of how hydroxychloroquine was promoted and critiqued, and which accounts were tweeting. Findings showed a highly polarized environment with active bots and conspiracy propagators, where political perspectives dominated the Twittersphere in the place of science-focused discussions.

Author Biographies

Alessandro R. Marcon, University of Alberta

Research Associate at the University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute (HLI)

Timothy Caulfield, University of Alberta

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health, and Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta. His interdisciplinary research on topics like stem cells, genetics, research ethics, the public representations of science and public health policy has allowed him to publish over 350 academic articles. He has won numerous academic and writing awards and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. He contributes frequently to the popular press and is the author of two national bestsellers: The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness (Penguin 2012) and Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash (Penguin 2015). His most recent book is Relax, Dammit!: A User's Guide to the Age of Anxiety (Penguin Random House, 2020). Caulfield is also the host and co-producer of the award winning documentary TV show, A User's Guide to Cheating Death, which has been shown in over 60 countries, including streaming on Netflix in North America.




How to Cite

Marcon, A. R., & Caulfield, T. . (2021). The Hydroxychloroquine Twitter War: A case study examining polarization in science communication. First Monday, 26(10).