Spread of the Coronavirus Emoji

Spread of the Coronavirus Emoji

The number one news story around the world right now is the spread of the latest strain of coronavirus, COVID-19.

While we don't have much to say about the spread of the virus itself – let's leave that to the experts – it is worth looking at how we discuss and respond to a threat like this online.

Assessing a set of twelve health-related emojis,[1] we were first interested to see which most commonly correlate with discussion of Coronavirus or COVID.

These 12 emojis were used as the basis of our initial analysis, the results of which are shown below.


Figure 1: "Coronavirus" or "COVID" were the most popular uses of 😷 Face with Medical Mask and 🦠 Microbe in March 2020.

🤢 Methodology

A sample of 49,621 unique tweets which included at least one of the twelve selected emojis was collected between the 7th and 8th of March, 2020.

Filtering these tweets to the set that also made reference to either "Coronavirus" or "COVID" left us with a sample of 2,454 tweets (4.95% of our original sample).

Of the assessed tweets, use of 😷 Face with Medical Mask and 🦠 Microbe showed the higher percentage match, indicating that these emojis were most focussed on discussing Coronavirus or COVID, whereas the data suggests others were being used for a wider variety of topics.


Above: 😷 Face with Medical Mask as it appears on major platforms.

This analysis suggests that at the present time, 😷 Face with Medical Mask and 🦠 Microbe may be the best emojis to use if looking to reference or describe coronavirus in using an emoji.

What this analysis doesn't tell us is which emojis are most used when assessing all Coronavirus-related tweets. For that, we conducted a separate anlysis.

😷 Tweets About Coronavirus

Emojipedia collected and analysed over 200,000 tweets across multiple languages which referenced either "Coronavirus" or "COVID-19", in order to determine which emojis are most popular in discussions of this topic.

With this information, we may be able to perform basic sentiment analysis based on which emojis show prominently, or to determine how information about coronavirus is conveyed.

The chart below displays the emojis most frequently found within coronavirus-related tweets.


Figure 2: Emojis most commonly included in tweets containing "Coronavirus", "COVID-19" or "COVID19".

This data was taken from a sample of 205,576 unique tweets collected by Emojipedia on the 7th and 8th of March 2020.

Topping the charts are two laughing emojis, the medical mask, a thinking face, and the aforementioned microbe emoji.

Further down the list is an eye-rolling emoji, a warning symbol, and folded hands most commonly used for prayer, but also used as a gesture of thanks.

  1. 😂 Face with Tears of Joy
  2. 🤣 Rolling on the Floor Laughing
  3. 😷 Face with Medical Mask
  4. 🤔 Thinking Face
  5. 🦠 Microbe
  6. 🔴 Red Circle
  7. 😭 Loudly Crying Face
  8. 🙄 Face with Rolling Eyes
  9. 👇 Backhand Index Pointing Down
  10. 😳 Flushed Face
  11. 🚨 Police Car Light
  12. ⚠️ Warning
  13. 🇮🇹 Flag: Italy
  14. 😱 Face Screaming in Fear
  15. 🙏 Folded Hands

While the presence of 😂 Face with Tears of Joy and 🤣 Rolling on the Floor Laughing at the top of the list may appear confusing, these two emojis are consistently some of the most used on Twitter.

The prominence of laughing emojis in coronavirus-related discussions could indicate any number of possibilities:

a. Tweets about coronavirus are no different to broader Twitter discussions, of which laughing emojis are consistently popular
b. People are specifically joking and making light of coronavirus-related news
c. A combination of the above, or other factors

To determine whether these results were being skewed by overall popularity of some emojis – and specifically the dominance of 😂 Face with Tears of Joy in online discussions, we collected a third sample as a control.

Analyzing 132,702 unique tweets from a non-topic-specific sample[2] taken on the 8th and 9th of March 2020, we compared the relatively difference in popularity experienced by our top 15 in the "COVID" sample to their popularity in the general sample. The table below outlines the difference in their rankings between these sets.


Above: a table[3] comparing the ranking of the top 15 emojis in our COVID sample of 205,576 tweets with the same emojis' rankings in a general sample of 132,702 tweets.

This comparison shows considerable increases, as expected, for emojis which aren't usually anywhere near as popular as 😂 Face with Tears of Joy.

Of the increases we see 😷 Face with Medical Mask (+ 100 places in popularity between the samples) 🦠 Microbe (+133), as well as eye-catching "warning" emojis such as 🔴 Red Circle (+64), 🚨 Police Car Light (+102), and ⚠️ Warning (+122).


Figure 3: a graph comparing the ranking of the top 15 emojis in our COVID sample of 205,576 tweets with the same emojis' rankings in a general sample of 132,702 tweets.

Additionally, the presence of 🇮🇹 Flag: Italy coincides with news of a regional quarantine in northern Italy[4]. The top five flag emojis located in our sample of 205,576 tweets are as follows:


Figure 4: Top flag emojis in tweets containing the term "Coronavirus", "COVID-19", or "COVID19".

  1. 🇮🇹 Flag: Italy
  2. 🇨🇳 Flag: China
  3. 🇺🇸 Flag: United States
  4. 🇫🇷 Flag: France
  5. 🇪🇸 Flag: Spain

📈 The Recent Rise

The prominence of both 😷 Face with Medical Mask and 🦠 Microbe in both of our Twitter samples was also echoed in our analysis of Emojipedia user behaviour over the last eight months.

We reviewed Emojipedia page view data from July 2019, specifically investigating trend data for 😷 Face with Medical Mask, 🦠 Microbe, and 🤕 Face with Head-Bandage.

🤕 Face with Head-Bandage was selected for inclusion as it previously correlated closely with 😷 Face with Medical Mask prior to the spread of COVID-19 in 2020.


Figure 5: Comparison of 😷 Face with Medical Mask, 🦠 Microbe, and 🤕 Face with Head-Bandage since July 2019, using Emojipedia page view data.

Both 😷 Face with Medical Mask and 🦠 Microbe diverge dramatically from 🤕 Face with Head-Bandage at the tail end of January 2020.

For 🦠 Microbe in particular, this is the most popular the emoji has been on Emojipedia since its approval in 2018.

Whether the various depictions of this emoji have influenced its use it hard to say. What appears to be a virus on Apple platforms appears more like bacteria on other apps and operating systems.


Above: 🦠 Microbe as it appears on various platforms.

💬 Related Terms

Lastly, we ran an analysis on the words most commonly used alongside 😷 Face with Medical Mask and 🦠 Microbe on Twitter.

These illustrations sampled 49,621 English-language tweets. 5,931 were analyzed where at least one 😷 Face with Medical Mask emoji was included and 2,512 tweets included at least one 🦠 Microbe emoji.


Above: Words in English-language tweets including 😷 Face with Medical Mask.


Above: Words in English-language tweets including 🦠 Microbe.

Variations of "coronavirus" and "COVID-19" appear prominently alongside both 😷 Face with Medical Mask and 🦠 Microbe, once again clearly indicating that these two emojis are now primarily being used to discuss COVID-19 and its spread across the world.

The fact that so few other topics are discussed using these emojis indicates that, at least at the time of writing, these are the coronavirus emojis as far as the general public is concerned.

  1. Editorially selected to include emojis commonly associated with heatlh, sickness, illness, or medical-related discussions. ↩︎

  2. In other words, a sample of tweets collected without any specific criteria, such as "contains COVID-19" or "contains 😷". ↩︎

  3. The original version of this article incorrectly listed Flag: Italy with an adjusted figure of 188 instead of 118. This was corrected soon after publication and Emojipedia regrets the error. ↩︎

  4. The entire country has since been placed on effective lockdown. ↩︎