Viral Communication: Public Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic

In this project, we are researching exposure to and use of information relevant to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis. Through this research, we have been collecting survey data relating to how people draw on, understand and share information. This involves exploring phenomena such as reception of scientific misinformation, risk perceptions and attitudes to mitigation behaviors. Insights from this research will inform recommendations about how to improve public resilience to misinformation
and/or its negative effects on public health and solidarity in society.

Project Goal

The early stages of an outbreak often see heightened public anxiety, concerns, different levels of perceived risk, misinformation, and stigmatization. At the same time, there is limited information about critical social dimensions and countermeasures. These dimensions have crucial consequences for the ways in which German residents make certain social, ethical, and legal decisions based on their own socio-economic situations which collectively have critical consequences for the way in which
the social context of the pandemic takes shape.

The goal of this project is to inform tailored and effective strategies to minimise the impact of the pandemic. Providing a robust knowledge base of German residents’ risk perceptions, attitudes and behaviours related to COVID-19 can enhance societal resilience by implementing bottom-up approaches which empower citizens and foster pro-social behaviour.


Objective 1

Gain insights on respondents’ demographic and socio-economic backgrounds, as well as the development of their understanding of the pandemic, perceptions of risk, and attitudes toward mitigation measures. This will be done by means of a nationally representative survey repeated a total of three times with the same individuals over 12 months.

Objective 2

Assess how individuals deal with ambiguities, ambivalences, and uncertainty through qualitative interviews with a subsample of survey participants, following up on each of the three survey measures.

Objective 3

Understand Germans’ online interactions and content creation related to COVID-19 through an online ethnography over six months. This includes monitoring participants’ social media feed and interactions, taking notes of issues potentially requiring further attention, and qualitative interviews. The interviews help capture information on reasoning behind the social media discourse, and meta-discursive features that correspond with, or diverge from conventional offline speech

Objective 4

Parallel to the online ethnography, gain insight into respondents’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to the pandemic by means of a diary survey. Here, they fill out a short questionnaire every two weeks.


This research project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and is officially named Understand-ELSED. The acronym stands for Understanding the Ethical, Legal, and Socio-Economic Dimensions of the COVID-19 Outbreak.

For more information about the funding, please visit the funder’s project page