While omicron quickly overtook the delta for being the dominant tribe of Covid-19 in the United States and many other countries, it is also spreading on social media.
People post about the omicron variant significantly more than they posted about the delta variant over a similar time frame, according to an exclusive report for Recode collected by media intelligence firm Zignal Labs.
Compared to the delta, omicron was mentioned about six times more often on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Reddit in the three weeks after each strain was first identified by the WHO by name as being variants of concern. In the three weeks after each strain was identified by the CDC as a variant of concern (which came later than the WHO), omicron was mentioned 2.2 times more often across the same social media channels.
“People are talking more and faster about omicron than they were about delta,” said Jennifer Granston, chief customer officer and head of insights at Zignal Labs. “It happened really, really fast.”
There are also signs that people are not only posting more but seeking more information about omicron than delta. On Google, the number of searches for “omicron” has already far surpassed those for “delta” at its highest earlier in the year by about 1.5 times as much, according to Google Trends.
Social media analysts offered some potential explanations for this increase: The virus spread faster than the delta variant did, meaning more people turn to social media to ask questions and share their concerns; and people are more comfortable publishing their Covid-19 status than they were earlier in the pandemic, so they share their test results online.
Omicron also lends itself to more discussion “purely from a meme perspective,” said Amanda Brennan, senior director of trends at social media agency XX Artists and former “meme librarian” on Tumblr.
Brennan described the prevalence of a kind of “defeatist mood” and “gallows humor” in the memes she has followed about omicron, which is “in a much deeper way than delta was.” While people are tired of a seemingly endless cycle of infection; they may also be more willing to joke about it now that the virus is better understood.
Then there is the New York media effect.
Since the end of November, when omicron first became a variant of concern, about 2 percent of all tweets about the variant also mentioned New York, according to Zignal Labs. The proliferation of journalists, influencers, and other media followers with large followers writing about the variant has helped omicron get the name “the media variant.” Many New Yorkers on social media have posted pictures that have gone viral, showing people lined up around city blocks to get a Covid-19 test, or TikTok collections of screenshots from their group texts showing friends warning each other about their Covid-19 statuses set to blaring pop music.
Despite the New York hype, many of the most shared tweets so far mentioning omicron have not been from New York City, but from outside the United States, according to Zignal. The most shared tweet per. December 17, according to Zignal, is written in Thai and warns people to take omicron seriously.
Overall, increased and early talk about omicron on social media can be both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, early conversations about omicron could serve as a warning to the public to be more cautious as this highly contagious variant begins to spread.
But the attack on social media chats can also open the door to misinformation about the variant of getting into the online discourse, which has been a recurring problem since the pandemic began in early 2020.
“One thing that we tend to try to really keep an eye on is special agendas or goals that are promoted because when you have these huge discussions and so many eyes, it’s very easy for people to inject a message, said Zignal Labs’ Granston.
As we end 2021 in the face of this new omicron wave, it feels in many ways as if we have gone back to the 2020 holiday rise. While people are struggling with this sense of déja vu, it makes sense that they are talking more online and trying to understand how they are adapting to the ever-changing new normal.
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