Fred Atilla wins Unilever Research Prize for research on growing negative emotions by corona on Twitter

Cognitive psychologist Fred Atilla has won the Unilever Research Prize 2022 for his research on how attention to and emotions about the approaching corona epidemic changed among Twitter users during the first few months of the pandemic. Physical distance from a corona hotspot was found to influence both public attention and sentiment among Twitter users. Atilla teaches machine learning in the humanities faculty. The prize of 2,500 euros and a work of art was presented November 24 in Wageningen.

Fred Atilla analyzed 300,000 messages associated with corona that appeared on Twitter between January and April 2020. His research examined the emotions of Twitter users. Since geographic location information is often linked to Twitter data, he was able to calculate the distance from the message’s country of origin to the nearest corona-infected region. Thus, he examined how Twitter users’ physical distance from the pandemic affected their attention and emotions. It found that as the disease got closer, more tweets were posted and the average sentiment in the tweets became more negative. 

This is valuable information for policymakers. It allows them to anticipate public reaction during the course of a crisis. It is also a starting point to increase public awareness of potential hazards. For example, local impacts of climate change such as flooding can be used to raise public awareness of global problems.

The Unilever Research Prijs  is awarded annually to thirteen outstanding students. 

Fred Atilla is an alumnus of Erasmus University.

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