Social sensing during the COVID-19 pandemic in Portugal

Dr Rui Gaspar and Mr Samuel Domingos discuss how Portugal used social media monitoring to track systemic risk perceptions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Knowing how different people, as “social sensors”, perceive demands posed by crises and the available resources to cope with these, enables improved institutional response. Here we provide an example of how social media monitoring was used to track systemic risk perceptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in Portugal to inform crisis management and communication.

From January 2020 to May 2021 more than 155000 user-generated publicly available comments in response to COVID-19 related publications from the Portuguese General-Directorate of Health and seven representative national media outlets, were extracted. Applying a social sensing conceptual-methodological approach – ResiliScence – and the DeCodeR framework for content-coding and analysis adapted to disease/viral outbreaks, each message was coded as an expression of demands (danger; effort; uncertainty) or resources (knowledge & capabilities; dispositions; support). This enabled longitudinal quantitative and qualitative monitoring of such perceptions during the COVID-19 pandemic in Portugal and created a Systemic Risk Perception index (SRP).

SRP significantly correlated with indicators of the epidemiological situation severity (e.g., the cumulative number of daily cases). Also identified were “crisis cycles” where SRP peaked, followed by “restoration cycles” where SRP consistently decreased towards previous average levels. Each cycle was characterized by distinct qualitative frames of demands and resources.

Findings allowed identifying health-threatening beliefs, behaviours, and social unrest sources, along with opportunities to reinforce existing protective knowledge, dispositions, behaviours, and intentions. Using a social sensing approach thus enabled evidence-based crisis management and communications.


The Speakers

Dr Rui Gaspar

Dr Rui Gaspar has a PhD in Psychology, specialization in Social Psychology from the University of Lisbon. He is a coordinator of the Degree in Psychology since February 2020 and of the post-grad course in Public Health Communication since February 2019. Board member and Principal Investigator at the Catolica Research Centre for Psychological, Family & Social Wellbeing (CRC-W), coordinated the project “ResiliScence 4 COVID-19: Social Sensing & Intelligence for Forecasting Human Response in Future COVID-19 Scenarios, towards Social Systems Resilience” funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology. He is President of the Society for Risk Analysis – Europe (SRA-E) and scientific committee member - “Risk Communication” panel - at the Portuguese Food Safety & Economic Authority. He is Associate Editor of Human Behaviour & Emerging Technologies (Wiley). His research focuses on Emerging Risks Perception, Risk Communication and Crisis Communication, and Information and Communication Technologies use.

Mr Samuel Domingos

Mr Samuel Domingos has a master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Évora. Currently he is a PhD candidate enrolled in the Lisbon PhD in Social Psychology program (LiSP) at ISPA – Instituto Universitário de Ciências Psicológicas, Sociais e da Vida. His research, being developed at the William James Center for Research, focus on the appraisal processes of extreme events situations, more precisely, the demands posed by those events and the available resources to cope with them. This includes implications for risk perception, communication, and policy making. He is also student representative for the Society for Risk Analysis – Europe Iberian Chapter (SRA


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