Elizabeth Cohen

Elizabeth Cohen, associate professor in the WVU Department of Communication Studies, believes celebrities and public figures who test positive for COVID-19 could have an effect on perceptions of the virus. 

Within 48 hours of actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announcing they tested positive for the novel coronavirus, one West Virginia University expert launched into research mode.

Elizabeth Cohen, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, has analyzed emotional responses to media and the attachments people have to celebrities and fictional characters. Through her research, Cohen has connected celebrity effects on public health and behavior. 

Now that a famous figure had tested positive for COVID-19, how would the general public’s perception of the potentially deadly virus change, if at all?

“There have now been a lot of well-known individuals testing positive for COVID-19, and of course there will be more,” Cohen said. “On one hand, these announcements may help make people understand how far-reaching the virus is. Or they can make people think ‘celebrities are just like us. If Tom Hanks can get it, I can get it’ On the other hand, it could make it seem like not such a big deal.”

Cohen created an online experiment through Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing service that researchers can utilize to gather data. She assigned half of the participants to read a basic statement about COVID-19 that included verbiage that Hanks tested positive for it. The other half of the participants read the same sentence except that Hanks’ name was swapped out with a random, regular “Joe Schmo” type of name.

She then asked participants their risk assessment of COVID-19, and whether they thought they were more susceptible to the virus or more concerned about it spreading to their loved ones after reading the statements.

Cohen plans to continue studying the issue and will eventually publish her findings.

“There’s evidence that celebrities are indicators of what’s acceptable,” Cohen said. “I think here we’re seeing an increase of risk but not necessarily severity, with Tom Hanks as an example. Knowing a celebrity has it raises a level of awareness.”

Hanks and his spouse, Wilson, were the first major celebrities to announce they’d tested positive for COVID-19. Idris Elba, star of “The Wire” and “Luther,” revealed he tested positive on Monday (March 16). Several athletes, including NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Rudy Gobert, have also tested positive.

Cohen referenced how the public began to perceive HIV from a more compassionate, understanding viewpoint when Magic Johnson announced his retirement from the NBA in 1991 after contracting the virus.

“There were at least 20 studies in the early 90s that came out looking at how it affected the perceptions and behaviors toward HIV,” she said. 

The same happened with suicide and mental illness following the death of comedian Robin Williams in 2014.

“Whether you want to believe it or not, celebrities have an effect on people’s social norms,” Cohen said. 

Recently, she’s studied the perceptions of vaping and preliminary results found that showing celebrities vaping made it more acceptable.

Even the president, Donald Trump, and his actions can influence how Americans react to the threat of coronavirus, Cohen added.

“He’s a celebrity, too,” she said. “And he has changed over the last few weeks. He pushed back on being tested when he first had the opportunity. But then he got tested. How he responds to it himself can be very influential on the public’s behaviors."