Tracing Sentiment on TraceTogether

Looking at Facebook Reactions to TraceTogether News

On the 20 March 2020, GovTech, the digital public services arm of the Singapore Government released TraceTogether[1], a contact tracing solution as part of efforts in containing the COVID-19 pandemic. First released as an app, a physical token was subsequently announced on 7 June 2020[2].

TraceTogether has received mixed reactions from the public ranging from praise as a solution other nations should adopt[3], privacy and convenience concerns[4], and even attempts at subversive modifications[5].

With TraceTogether having been in effect for little over a year old, and a resident up-take of almost 90%[6], we want to look at how public sentiment on TraceTogether has changed over time.

Here, we do a simple sentiment analysis using Facebook reactions to articles shared on the Straits Times Facebook Page[7] mentioning TraceTogether.

A Timeline of TraceTogether News Coverage

We found 89 Straits Times articles in total, over the period of 20 March 2020, when TraceTogether was first announced, to 31 February 2021.

Likes and Comments 👍 💬

We have separated from the other more emotive reactions as we see as a form of acknowledgement of the news article published, rather than a positive reaction (Haha, Love, Care).

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The number of articles about TraceTogether being published increased over the months, with the exception of June to September 2020, where no articles about TraceTogether were published. This 'dry spell' could be due to the articles not being uploaded onto Facebook, or due to Facebook's algorithm not bringing it up. When looking at the mean of the number of and comments, they generally followed a trend of spiking in the beginning of the TraceTogether being reported, dipping in between, and then increasing again from September 2020 onwards.

The mean number of peaked in December 2020, while the mean number of comments peaked twice in May and October 2020. The higher number of comments in those two months could be related to news on TraceTogether being mandatory[8][9], where people debated endlessly in the comments section on concerns over their privacy. In January 2021, the mean number of and comments were low, despite a high number of publications. This corresponded with the government's hasty efforts to try and appease the public when news about TraceTogether being used for non-contact tracing purposes published[10].

Overall Sentiments 🎭

Excluding , we consider Haha, Love, and Care as positive reactions while Wow, Sad and Angry were classed under negative reactions. The overall sentiments towards TraceTogether articles has been pretty positive rather than negative, whereby the average total number of Haha and Love reactions hovered around 6,500. In contrast, the total number of Angry reaction was around 2,400.

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Initially, people had mixed reactions towards news introducing TraceTogether. Some were against this new national contact tracing program, while others were supportive of it. However, the reactions dipped until October 2020, which aligned with a peak in publication about TraceTogether. Hence, it is expected that people tend to form stronger opinions on TraceTogether as it is made more salient in seasons of high publications.

Positive Sentiments 😆 😍 🥰

We consider the Haha, Love, and Care reactions to express positive sentiment, with Love reactions being stronger than Haha reactions. The Care reaction was a new reaction introduced at the start of the pandemic[11] and suspect that people haven't quite figured out how to use it, hence its low appearance.

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Generally, people were not responding positively towards new about TraceTogether when it was first announced. However over time, sentiments increasingly became more positive, especially from October 2020 onwards. In November 2020, the government set the condition of nationwide TraceTogether usage of 70% to enter into phase 3 of post circuit breaker measures, which introduces more relaxed safety measures[12]. When the target was quickly hit in the following month[13], the possibility of entering phase 3 was followed by a peak in positive reactions.

On a whole, the positive sentiments towards TraceTogether have been increasing since it was introduced. This is a testament to how people have so quickly normalised adopting this new technology in our daily routine and lives.

Negative Sentiments 😡 😢 😮

We consider the Angry, Sad, and Wow reactions to express negative sentiment, with Angry reactions being stronger than Sad reactions. Wow reactions are a mixed bag, expressing surprise which can be both positive and negative.

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When TraceTogether was first announced[14], people were more Sad than Angry about this new contact tracing technology. They were mostly concerned about the effectiveness of the solution (Was another app really necessary?) as well as concerns on privacy.

However, an opinion piece published in May 2020 calling for the mandatory use of TraceTogether sparked this unhappiness into anger as, expectedly, no one likes the idea of being compelled to use an app. This marked a similiar response to previous attempts by the Singapore government to force their apps onto us[15][16].

This initial burst of negative sentiments would then be repeated again in October 2020 when the government did announce mandatory TraceTogether use in public[17].

The most recent peak in negative sentiments would then be in January 2021, with the announcement that TraceTogether had been used for criminal investigation back in May 2020[18], even before the promise made in June that the technology would only be used for contact tracing purposes[19]. This breach of public trust led sentiment towards TraceTogether to plummet, which has yet to recover.

Try it Yourself! 👀

Here, we have displayed every article as a single point to be explored, which can be sorted according to the various reactions. You'll be able to identify which specific article induced a large shift in sentiment.

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Even as the increasing positive sentiment suggests that we have normalised the use of TraceTogether and other contact tracing solutions into our daily routines, we should not depend on moments of controversy to evaluate what these technologies mean for our personal privacy and use of public space.

It remains to be seen how long TraceTogether would remain in our lives. While the government promises that this national contact tracing programme will be shut down once the pandemic is over[20], recent development in TraceTogether infrastructure suggests that they will be more permanent fixtures[21].

While using Facebook reactions to perform a sentiment analysis is tenuous and cannot fully encapsulate the true sentiments of the public, we hope that these visualisations provide grounds for kickstarting important conversations on what TraceTogether and other contact tracing solutions mean for our daily living.

Till then, don't forget to check in! 😃🤳


Designed and written by Ivan Chuang and Eva Tiffany Teo, Master's in Urban Science, Planning and Policy programme (MUSPP) @ Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). 2021.