Political leaders across Europe failed to promote COVID-19 health guidelines on social media in the early days of the pandemic, according to a new academic study.

Researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University and two universities in Spain analysed the Twitter use of political leaders from countries in Europe most affected by coronavirus.

The study found that in the first 40 days of the health pandemic, just 1.9% of Boris Johnson’s tweets related to official health guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

They also found that Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO behaved “more like an Instagram influencer” by tweeting quotes from celebrities.

The study focused on images and videos posted by Johnson and WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom, as well as Emmanuel Macron, of France, Pedro Sánchez, of Spain, Giuseppe Conte, of Italy, and Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. 

Information relating to World Health Organisation recommendations accounted for 1.9% of Boris Johnson’s tweets, compared with 53.1% of Conte’s, 33.7% of Macron’s and 22.4% of Sanchez’s. 

Johnson’s figures for social distancing, 13.7%, and confinement, 37.2%, were higher than the other premiers but all four leaders rarely highlighted hand-washing – Macron, 1.1%, Johnson, 6.8%, Sanchez, 4.8%, and Conte, 9.3%. 

WHO director-general Adhanom was criticised for a lack transparency as he had deleted tweets posted before early April.  

The study states: “Some weeks Tedros Adhanom posts more than 300 tweets and some of them are more reminiscent of an Instagram influencer – quoting celebrities and introducing concepts such as ‘Love’ and ’Peace’, without providing any context – than a director of a global medical organisation facing the worst health crisis in decades. 

“The leader of the WHO lacks transparency as far as all tweets before 7th April from the Tedros Adhanom profile have been deleted and he has dedicated most of his posts to arguing with other leaders and to justify previous decisions.” 

The paper, entitled European leaders unmasked: COVID-19 communication strategy through Twitter, and published in Spanish journal El Profesional de la Información, stresses public communication is key in “slowing the spread of the virus and reducing the death rate”. 

It concludes that there was a disconnect in the leaders’ Twitter sphere “as they failed to use the medium to re-enforce the public health messages with supporting personal actions or values in the pictures and videos they posted. 

“They did not take advantage of their influential position to show themselves wearing masks, observing social distancing, or following rigorous measures such as regular handwashing,” the study states. 

Dr Lindsey Drylie Carey, senior lecturer in marketing at Glasgow Caledonian University, and one of the authors added: “The higher the authentic authority of the leader in times of crisis, the easier it is to impose necessary actions and sanctions. 

“It seems that the leaders we investigated in this research were not able to portray an adequate level of authentic authority within their communication strategy on Twitter. 

“All the leaders mainly used the platform as a news service with very little interest in entering into a two-way dialogue with the users.”