Paek and Hove (2017) defined the concept of ‘risk perception’ as “people’s subjective assessment of the possibility that negative outcomes or diseases may occur” (p. 1). This perception is governed by two main dimensions: the perceived susceptibility dimension, which refers to how people perceive risk and the likelihood of contracting diseases, and the severity dimension, which refers to people’s ability to process information about risks and understand the seriousness and aggressiveness of diseases (El-Toukhy 2015; Pask & Rawlins 2016; Dryhurst, et al., 2020; Balog-Way, & McComas, 2020). Susceptibility and severity play important roles in shedding light on risk perception, according to protection motivation theory (Rogers, 1983). The two constitute the main dimensions of information processing when individuals consider the threats from a hazard. The theory assumes that individuals will feel a sense of pressure to adopt health recommendations to protect themselves from any harm. It further concludes that a high level of perceived risk is needed to adapt healthy behaviors during a crisis. Meanwhile, the extended parallel process model (Witte, 1992) highlights that risk perception is a pivotal element that influences behavioral response during a crisis (Rimal & Real 2003b).
When people evaluate the susceptibility of the harm they might endure during a crisis, they may make assumptions using a heuristic process. When individuals in society are more aware of the risk, they are likely to assume that risks occur more frequently than they do. This is known as availability heuristics (Kahneman et al. 1982). For instance, when individuals are heavily exposed to media coverage of a disease, such as the H1N1 virus, they tend to have a higher perceived risk of contracting the virus compared to others (Paek & Hove, 2017). Risk perception is mainly an interpretation and subjective judgment about a current risk (Slovic, 2000). Hence, it is an essential element of a risk-based decision, such as adopting healthy behavior during a crisis. Therefore, risk perception is explicitly associated with natural disasters, such as hurricanes or pandemics, as well as human-made disasters, such as nuclear radiation exposure (El-Toukhy 2015; Rimal & Real 2003).
Risk perception has a profound impact on society, as it influences individual behavior during a crisis, which profoundly affects the success of policies and regulations that are implemented to address a crisis. Considering the current outbreak of COVID–19, risk perception can have a substantial impact on the precautionary measures that individuals undertake to reduce their exposure to disease transmission. It shapes people’s decision-making in promoting preventive measures during a pandemic (Choi et al. 2017). Another element of risk perception is optimistic bias; this concept states that individuals tend to believe that the risks posed by a disaster are less severe for them than for other people. This tendency to underestimate the harm of a disaster, as they underestimate the probability and severity of that harm inflicted on them, is mainly dependent on the information disseminated regarding a hazard (Weinstein, 1980).Specifically, while analyzing risk perception, the focus is on individual cognitive judgment regarding their susceptibility to a risk; however, such analysis ignores the effect of heuristics and the role of the information sources in shaping perception. Slovic (2000) argued that risk perception should focus on how individuals tend to be influenced by their emotions while making a decision or perceiving risk. It is argued that human beings may perceive risk as more threatening when they feel intense dread about it. Nonetheless, cognitive assessment and emotional judgments are often strong, determining people’s risk prospects and behavior (Loewenstein et al. 2001).
Generally, research regarding the factors influencing risk perception has focused on how individual perception is affected by media exposure and the social, cultural, institutional, and political processes. This widely accepted view highlights that the understanding of people’s risk perception is not only determined by the scientific information they obtain or their physical experiences with a hazard. McCarthy et al. (2008) argued that a critical factor that affect risk perception is how the media shape public risk perception; they also indicated various types of media factors that affect the risk perception of the public, such as the type of media, amount and tone of coverage, and trustworthiness of the source. When a public issue arises, people tend to perceive the risks to themselves (Pask & Rawlins 2016). The manifestation of infectious diseases, such as COVID–19, which was not anticipated in a specific time or region, tends to lead to immediate public risk perception (Oh, Eom, and Rao 2015). Thus, examining risk perception is essential to understanding how it shapes self-efficacy beliefs.
Trust in government
Citizen’s trust in government as a whole is a fundamental topic in the study of social phycology (Hetherington 1998; Houston et al. 2016; Miller 1974; Van der Meer 2010; Vigoda‐Gadot and Talmud 2010). Gamson (1968) defined trust in government as “the probability […] that the political system (or some part of it) will produce preferred outcomes even if left untended.” (p. 54). Coleman and Iso-Ahola (1993) described trust as a subcategory of risk: the expectation of gain or loss, which determines whether or not citizens will trust the government. Therefore, trust is never absolute, but always conditional and contextual (Ruscio, 1996). According to Braithwaite and Levi (1998), and citizens may differ widely in their perception. They also identified the two possible ways citizens can trust their government. First, people will trust everyone in the government as an institution, and second, people trust that the decisions taken by the government are in the best interest of the citizens. This definition is based on the conceptual framework of game theory, which provides a specific understanding of trust in government. It is based on the idea that granting trust to the government is based on individual interest, and that trusting the government depends on the individual’s strategy to maximize utility. Thus, individuals’ trust in the government is based on the idea of self-interest (Braithwaite & Levi 1998; Levi & Stoker 2000).
Trust in government is an important factor that determines the success of any policy. Historically, during crises, trust in government played a crucial role in shaping public behavior, specifically, people’s willingness to comply; it also influences their support for government policies during a crisis, specifically health policies (Tomes 2000; Sankar et al. 2003; Tilney 2004). Chanley et al. (2000) highlighted that public trust in the government is one of the most important factors that influences public risk perception and which untimely shapes public policymaking. Therefore, trust in government highlights the importance of public support during a crisis, which will minimize the conflict between the public and the government officials enforcing the rules (Metlay, 2013). For example, if the public does not trust their government during a disaster, specifically a health crisis, a high degree of non-compliance and conflict could be anticipated from the public towards government institutes and their policies. This relation occurs as the negative risk perception will influence public will and the increase public opposition to government activities during a crisis (Pijawka & Mushkatel 1991).
Empirical evidence on epidemics has highlighted that trust in government is vital to the success of any policy during a crisis. For instance, Slovic et al. (1991) concluded that trust in government would decrease if the public viewed their government as abusing its power and being dishonest. During the smallpox outbreak in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1894, the government forcibly isolated poor immigrants in hospitals while allowing wealthy families to stay at home, and as a result, trust in government declined and deteriorated, leading to a month-long riot that allowed the acceleration in the spread of smallpox (Leavitt, 2003). At the core of trust in government during a crisis are the questions of how people trust government agencies and how risk perception shapes public behavior (Smith and Mayer 2018). Specifically, the effect of risk perception on trust in government has been studied, although the literature that discusses this relation is limited. Earlier works have examined how risk perception influences trust in government, which is crucial to understanding how people deal with a public threat or epidemic (Smith & Mayer 2018).
In the context of the COVID–19 pandemic, if information regarding health issues is vast and people are gathering information from different sources, their trust in the government will be based on their determination of the risks and benefits associated with the pandemic. In turn, this determination may influence their acceptance of government health measures to combat COVID–19 (Siegrist & Cvetkovich 2000). Hence, if citizens trust the government, which is responsible for responding to a hazard, their risk perception will be positively influenced and trust will help ensure public acceptance of and cooperation with government agencies (Siegrist & Cvetkovich 2000; Tumlison, Moyer, & Song 2017; Vainio, Paloniemi, & Varho 2017). Thus, studies that have focused on understanding the risk perception of different hazards have found a strong correlation between risk perception and trust in government (Bronfman and Vázquez 2011; Keller, Visschers, and Siegrist 2012; Vainio et al. 2017).
Self-efficacy helps shape individuals’ ability to overcome a social difficulty (Bandura, 1990). This can be understood as an individual’s belief in their ability in managing a difficult task they face (Bandura, 1997). Bandura (1997) also added that the primary understanding of self-efficacy theory is ‘people’s beliefs in their capabilities to produce desired effects by their actions.’ (p. 7), The theory argues that efficacy belief is a part of psychological adjustments during a crisis. Self-efficacy can be seen when a public health crisis occurs, such as the COVID–19 pandemic. It plays an imperative role in motivating a person during hazards, which leads to specific changes in the person’s behavior and attitudes (Dorsey, Miller, and Scherer 1999). Studies have examined how self-efficacy is shaped by risk perception (Cameron et al. 1996; Coleman and Iso-Ahola 1993; Mishra & Fiddick 2012).
However, the ability of self-efficacy beliefs to encourage a sense of competence and control over the perceived outcomes of a specific unwanted situation is seen as a higher level of self-efficacy, which leads to a greater probability of enacting and adopting health measures during a public health threat (Reid & Aiken 2011). Thus, self-efficacy can also be highlighted as a form of social construct. Although these types of constructs may differ depending on culture, the need for individuals to control seems universal, and studies have also examined how individuals in different cultures practice self-efficacy (Young et al. 1991). For example, the self-efficacy concept has been widely studied in regard to how it changes behavior when dealing with health threats, such as smoking (Carey et al. 1989). Therefore, it is an exciting topic that reflects people’s perception of behavioral responses through prevention measures that they should undertake during a health crisis (Isa et al. 2013; Giritli Nygren, & Olofsson, 2020). In particular, self-efficacy is highlighted as a motive and need for control which can also be viewed as a drive to alter behavior. However, this drive is not a permanent personality trait. Self-efficacy is the ability to direct skills to accomplish a desired goal in a practical circumstance that is mostly a domain that arises owing to a threat (Chen et al. 2001; Sherer et al. 1982; Smart et al. 1984). According to social cognitive theory, self-efficacy is an action motivated from within rather than enforced by the environment. Two of the central ideas of the theory are, first, that individuals’ cognitive capabilities are powerful tools that allow a person to develop a course of action based on experience; the testing of hypothetical actions using one’s mental capabilities will predict the outcome (Bandura 2001; Barone et al. 1997). Second, humans are capable of self-regulation; that is, to achieve a goal, individuals will regulate and change their behavior. Self-regulation will assist in anticipating expectancies and tapping past knowledge and experiences to form beliefs about future events (Molden & Dweck 2006).
Therefore, self-efficacy is a construct that needs to be studied further. The present study aimed to provide a unique understanding of the relation between risk perception and self-efficacy during a pandemic. Risk perception and self-efficacy are affected by information regarding a hazard. People gather information regarding a public health issue, and this tendency shapes their reaction and behavior during a crisis (McCarthy et al. 2008; Song 2015).
Social Media Content
Traditional media, such as newspapers and television, used to be the primary sources of information for most people (Dudo et al. 2007; Paek et al. 2016), these sources of media are a crucial source of information for the public regarding public health crises (Lin and Lagoe 2013; Oh et al. 2015). Chang (2012) demonstrated the association between risk perception during the H1N1 outbreak and the information produced by television channels.
However, in today’s world, social media has transformed the way individuals obtain information, and given the continuous change in the communication industry, people around the world have shown an increasing inclination toward obtaining information through social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. Thus, as observed by Lin et al. (2016), health information during crises is mainly obtained from social media platforms as it is more convenient. Unlike with traditional media, users of social media can acquire, generate, and share critical health information. For example, people used social media as a central public platform to discuss and exchange information during the H1N1 outbreak (Davies, 2014). These platforms are a primary contributor to people’s risk perception about a public health crisis and also provide information that influences their protective health measures (Chung, 2016). Social media has become the primary platform for people to express their emotional responses, such as worry and fear of health issues and virus outbreaks since the H1N1 outbreak (Chew & Eysenbach 2010; Signorini et al. 2011). During the MERS outbreak, social media platforms played a significant role in the dissemination of factual information, as reflected in a study by Song (2015) that used big data. Such information included news on the systems in place and prevention methods. However, popular and easy-to-access platforms are associated with negative emotional responses to public health issues and are considered a primary contributor to fear and anxiety among the public (Paek & Hove 2017; Signorini et al. 2011; Fu, & Zhu 2020).
Aladwani (2017) highlighted that perceived quality of social media content encompassed Four dimensions: reﬂective quality which reflects the personal belief of how the content on social media supports ones need, the second dimension is practiced quality which can be understood as how the content on social media meets one need and shape their behavior, thirdly, advocated quality reflects how a person behavior to support and advocate the information on social media and lastly, stimulated quality which reflects individual feelings regarding social media content and how its serves one need in the time of need.
As risk perception incorporates susceptibility and severity of public hazards (El-Toukhy, 2015), social media shapes perceived susceptibility by providing information about the increasing number of patients affected by public health hazards, whereas perceived severity in social media is related to the focus on information that has adverse impacts such as death or severe injury (McWhirter & Hoffman-Goetz 2016). Hence, exposure to negative information, such as pain concerning the MERS and H1N1 outbreaks, is positively associated with the perceived severity of the disease, whereas the information regarding the increasing number of deaths and infected patients could also be associated with perceived susceptibility. Social media content is assumed to contribute to an increase in people’s risk perception during a public health crisis (Choi et al. 2017). Vos and Buckner (2016) asserted that social media content plays a critical role in the spread of information about a crisis and helps the public in making sense of public health issues. However, researchers concluded that limited information regarding self-efficacy is also disseminated.
Another perspective states that risk perception and self-efficiency are constructs that mainly depend on the information obtained about a crisis (Agha, 2003). During the early stages of the COVID–19 outbreak in China, conspiracy theories spread around the globe. Racism, panic buying, and inaccurate information have been linked to the dissemination of information on social media. The widespread misinformation generated panic among the public (Depoux et al. 2020). Subsequently, social media platforms, such as Facebook, have directed users to the World Health Organization website as well as myth-busters and fact-checker websites to combat misinformation about COVID–19 (Merchant and Lurie 2020). Twitter has been highlighting consistent information about COVID–19 (Josephson & Lambe 2020), as the worldwide public panic can be fought with fact-based content (Lancet, 2020).Moreover, social media, as a primary source of information, influences public health responses by providing accurate content, as seen in China during the quarantine. Social media platforms were used to provide advice and reassurance to the public regarding quarantine as well as to convey the ability of the government to manage the outbreak. Hence, social media can provide awareness regarding a disease, specifically on how to prevent an infection by highlighting protective measures (Depoux et al. 2020). At present, 2.9 billion people around the world rely on social media to gather information regarding COVID–19. Thus, information shared will impact the decisions made by the public during the pandemic and will influence their trust in government and self-efficacy beliefs (Depoux et al. 2020; Jin 2020; Merchant & Lurie 2020).
Based on the above arguments, we have formulated the following research hypotheses.
H1: Risk perception has a positive effect on trust in government.
H2: Risk perception has a positive effect on self-efficacy.
H3a: Social media content moderates the relationship between risk perception and trust in government, such that the relation is stronger when perceived quality social media quality is higher.
H3b: Social media content moderates the relationship between risk perception and self-efficacy, such that the relation is stronger when perceived quality social media quality is higher.