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Using Social Media to Mine and Analyze Public Opinion Related to COVID-19 in China

The outbreak of Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a grave global public health emergency. Nowadays, social media has become the main channel through which the public can obtain information and express their opinions and feelings. This study explored public opinion in the early stages of COVID-19 in China by analyzing Sina-Weibo (a Twitter-like microblogging system in China) texts in terms of space, time, and content. Temporal changes within one-hour intervals and the spatial distribution of COVID-19-related Weibo texts were analyzed. Based on the latent Dirichlet allocation model and the random forest algorithm, a topic extraction and classification model was developed to hierarchically identify seven COVID-19-relevant topics and 13 sub-topics from Weibo texts. The results indicate that the number of Weibo texts varied over time for different topics and sub-topics corresponding with the different developmental stages of the event. The spatial distribution of COVID-19-relevant Weibo was mainly concentrated in Wuhan, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta, and the Chengdu-Chongqing urban agglomeration. There is a synchronization between frequent daily discussions on Weibo and the trend of the COVID-19 outbreak in the real world. Public response is very sensitive to the epidemic and significant social events, especially in urban agglomerations with convenient transportation and a large population. The timely dissemination and updating of epidemic-related information and the popularization of such information by the government can contribute to stabilizing public sentiments. However, the surge of public demand and the hysteresis of social support demonstrated that the allocation of medical resources was under enormous pressure in the early stage of the epidemic. It is suggested that the government should strengthen the response in terms of public opinion and epidemic prevention and exert control in key epidemic areas, urban agglomerations, and transboundary areas at the province level. In controlling the crisis, accurate response countermeasures should be formulated following public help demands. The findings can help government and emergency agencies to better understand the public opinion and sentiments towards COVID-19, to accelerate emergency responses, and to support post-disaster management.

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AUTHORS
Xuehua Han (State Key Laboratory of Resources and Environmental Information System, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China)

Juanle Wang (State Key Laboratory of Resources and Environmental Information System, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China)

Min Zhang (State Key Laboratory of Resources and Environmental Information System, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China)

Xiaojie Wang (State Key Laboratory of Resources and Environmental Information System, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China)