COVID-19 and the widening online information gap

*Important notice: medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), led to over 229 million infections worldwide and over 4.7 million deaths.

Study: Widening Disparities in Online Information Access during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Image Credit: Vizilla/ ShutterstockStudy: Widening Disparities in Online Information Access during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Image Credit: Vizilla/ Shutterstock

A new study shows that digital access to information inequalities have further increased during this period, inevitably reflecting in health, education, and employment.

A preprint version of the study is available on the medRxiv* server while the article undergoes peer review.


Existing disparities in healthcare access and quality have increased during the pandemic. Access to digital resources has also become important during this time, as social distancing and business closures became part of public health policy. Not only did online engagement become necessary for healthcare, education, work opportunities, and social interactions, but public pandemic-related communications also occurred primarily via the Web.

However, different communities often have varying types and extents of access to online information. Those with lower levels of education are also likely to take more time to adapt to the need to use the Web and understand the information it holds, beginning from childhood up. This compromises their ability to form socially productive and business-related networks.

Even with equal access to the Web, a higher SES leads to the easy incorporation of many digital resources into daily life and the use of the Web to build more wealth and status, which pushes up their SES still more.

The current study uses search engines to understand how people of different communities showed varying levels of digital involvement, upward or downward, and how far this reflected the social situation.

Why web search logs?

Web search logs are routinely collected while the search engine is used, allowing the data to be examined at near-real-time and large scales. This data sheds light on the way people behave online.

The outcome could help illuminate the barriers which may exist. Such data has already been mined to help understand people's mental, emotional, physical, and economic health in response to the pandemic.

What did the study show?

The researchers explored 55 billion everyday web search interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic across over 25,000 US ZIP codes. They connected each interaction to five areas that determine the health status, as defined by the US Department of Health, through the ZIP code.

The five areas include; Healthcare Access and Quality, Education Access and Quality, Social and Community Context, Economic Stability, and Neighborhood and Built Environment.

This helped them link the degree of change in two ZIP code groups. It reflected the change in the demand for information on jobs or health-related issues or the extent to which online media became an avenue to learning or other resources. They matched ZIP codes by race, ethnicity, and SES to avoid the confounding effects of these important determinants on the outcomes.

Health Information Access

The study shows that lower-income ZIP codes had a smaller increase in online health-related searches, by 200%, though there was an overall increase in both high and low-income communities. Other racial and socioeconomic factors linked to a lower search response included Hispanic composition, population density, unemployment, and counties with a >12% Black population from August onwards.

Economic Assistance Access

Changes in unemployment-related search queries correlated with unemployment claims and show a three-fold higher impact on counties with higher vs. lower Black populations. The searches in this area were over 1,600 percentage points higher for employment-related queries in the former county type and unemployment websites for each state after the expiry of federal benefits.

ZIP codes with Hispanic and Black populations also showed 700-800 percentage points higher searches in unemployment sites, unlike those with lower levels of education, which showed 500 percentage points less. This indicates harmful barriers to accessing financial and welfare benefits, especially because the poor or underprivileged are less likely to put a high priority on better digital access when they are suffering economically.

Educational inequalities and Black ethnicity may widen the gap in claiming unemployment benefits between the educated and less educated. This could mean that while more such individuals searched for such benefits online, they were relatively less successful in accessing these benefits.

Shift to Digital Resources

Disparities in digital access make social and material poverty worse. They may drive such populations into a vicious cycle as digital resources become key to accessing economic, social, and educational resources.

ZIP codes with a greater Hispanic or Black population, lower-income, and greater population density, had a smaller associated increase in searches for free online resources, at 50-66% of the matched county. This shows that even these well-designed and free resources that aim to allow for self-paced learning were not used as well in the former type of county.

In-person learning and school-based remote learning or assignments for homework were also much less likely in areas with low SES, further reducing the chances of a good educational outcome.

Secondly, online food deliveries were increased 170% vs.>500% in ZIP codes with a higher vs. lower Black, Hispanic or low-income population. Possibly inferring that the latter is in more need of and receive more food assistance and eat out less often, especially since food delivery via online services is more expensive.

While low-income ZIP codes had a much higher rate of food assistance queries, the fact that these are not compatible with online food purchase or delivery shows the discriminatory limitations imposed on the people by income and race.

What are the implications?

The study findings corroborate the impact of SES on digital expertise and the usage of these resources during the pandemic. Accessibility is not enough without skill training.

When there are prolonged periods spent at home and without school time, a low SES may worsen other disadvantages. Lack of internet access is linked to lower use of Web-based unemployment resources, especially when economic stability is at issue.

Consistently, low SES populations, including those with a high Hispanic composition, used the Web-based health resources at a lower level.

Smaller studies will explain why such experiences occurred and how different large-scale interventions in specific populations affected the communities. These measures may include training on internet use, or perhaps paper-based or text-messaging-based communication since these are favorable for low-SES-populations.

*Important notice: medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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