In October and November 2014, it seemed as if Ebola was the biggest threat facing both the United States and the world at large. Stories of Ebola-infected patients filled newspapers and Internet headlines, and social media was abuzz with people talking about the virus. There was even the brief scare of Ebola spreading on American soil, as multiple patients were treated in U.S. hospitals.
Today, the media landscape in the United States is far different. The top stories are focused more on the civil rights protests taking place around the country and the suspected North Korean involvement in the hacks against Sony than the Ebola virus. That’s the nature of the 24/7 news cycle — stories dominate the national conversation for a brief period, are consumed rapidly and then quickly forgotten. In West Africa, however, Ebola is still very much on people’s minds.
We’re currently still in the midst of the largest Ebola outbreak in recorded history. According to the World Health Organization’s latest report, more than 7,300 people have died from the virus during this outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Those three countries have been struggling to contain the virus for numerous reasons, including an insufficient health care infrastructure and improper burial procedures. Sierra Leone’s health care workers have been particularly affected in recent months, as Dr. Victor Willoboughy recently became the 11th physician to succomb to the virus in the country. He died last Thursday.
Looking at data and analytics from Google and social media sites like Twitter paints an interesting picture of how American interest in Ebola has slowed in recent weeks. The Google Trend report (above) for the search term "Ebola" shows spikes during October and November, with searches reaching their highest points when Ebola was first brought to Texas in late September. The data then trails off, with few searches at all throughout the month of December.
This is vastly different compared with the Google search data from Sierra Leone (below), which has maintained relatively steady interest throughout the past 90 days. It makes sense that regional interest in a topic like Ebola would be higher when the virus directly threatens a particular country, but the U.S. had a high rate of searches before the virus ever arrived on American shores. The data suggests, then, that the American public’s interest in the outbreak corresponds with media coverage. Social media networks reflect the same trend, with more than 6,000 tweets about Ebola happening in early October but a steady downward trend ever since. In the past month alone, tweets per day about Ebola have dropped by 20,000.
Although the U.S. media — both traditional and social — has largely moved away from covering and discussing Ebola, the virus has shown little signs of slowing down. The threat of patients in the United States becoming infected is no larger or smaller than it was in October, but the fear and discussion surrounding the possibility is essentially no longer there. As with every major news story that dominates public conversation, it takes time for people to realize how things fit into the larger context. Ebola is a strange case because it’s still very much a real threat, still causing an unprecedented amount of deaths in West Africa, and still without a cure. Yet it's just not being talked about anymore. Perhaps people have realized that the threat of an actual outbreak in the U.S. similar to the one in West Africa is unlikely, but it's unfortunate that our interest in the serious viral outbreak has been dominated by fearmongering, media coverage and the ever-shortening attention span of the U.S. public.