Justice in the COVID-19 Crisis: What People Are Saying on Social Media

Justice in the COVID-19 Crisis:
What People Are Saying
on Social Media

Trends beyond words | Words behind trends

Justice problems on
social media

What people are saying on Facebook and Twitter during the pandemic

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, people have been sharing their views on the justice problems happening around them on social media. In April 2020, HiiL began collecting data from Facebook and Twitter to identify trends in social media activity and find out what people around the world have been saying. Based on an analysis of hundreds of thousands of social media messages, this report aims to answer the following questions:

Most of all, this experimental project aims to explore the potential and limits of a new source of data and knowledge. Below, we explore what social media can tell us about justice.

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Our methodology

How we listened for justice problems on social media

To collect rapid, almost real-time people-centred data on justice during the COVID-19 crisis, we asked HiiL national experts in the nine countries where we have presence to identify hashtags, keywords, and phrases which people use to discuss justice problems on social media. This led to a list of country-specific keywords. The keywords were aggregated and coded into eleven justice problems categories: crime; domestic violence; medical bill disputes; financial disputes; business problems, housing disputes; disputes between neighbours; problems with accessing government benefits; and land disputes.

With the help of an external knowledge partner – GemSeek – we used the locally-validated keywords to collect data from Twitter and Facebook in South Africa, Nigeria, Lebanon, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Mali, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tunisia. Messages were collected retrospectively from 1 January 2020 to create pre-COVID-19 data. We also gathered messages from Twitter and Facebook that contained the keywords but were not linked to the nine focus countries. This dataset is referred to as the “global dataset”.

A natural language processing algorithm was developed, trained, and applied to classify each social media message into categories. The algorithm was set to distinguish between general COVID-19 messages and messages related to justice problems. For example, somebody might say, “I lost a good job.” This is clearly a justice problem. Another person might say, “Good job with your efforts on the final exam.” This is not a justice problem.

The algorithm retained the relevant messages and removed others, which were marked as noise. The relevant messages were then classified into the aforementioned eleven justice problem categories.

After all of these steps, the dataset for the nine focus countries consisted of 587,286 messages (from January-July 2020). Of these messages, 73 percent are specific to a justice category and 27 percent are COVID-19-related. Nigeria and South Africa account for the majority of the messages, with 36 percent and 33 percent of all messages, respectively. The next countries in terms of frequency are Kenya, Uganda, and Lebanon with 14 percent, 10 percent, and 4 percent, respectively. The other countries have relatively low message counts.

A machine learning algorithm estimated the sentiment of each social media message in the country dataset. Sentiment analysis is a classification method that aims to identify the degree of feeling or emotion embedded into a text. In practice, the algorithm checks the texts for occurrences of positive, negative, and neutral words and phrases. Based on the results of this analysis, a sentiment score is generated and attached to each social media message.

The global dataset consists of over 79 million messages.

Analysing these messages produced the following visualisations, which provide global, country-level, and comparative insights into social media activity around justice problems over the past six months.

Instead of explaining the trends, we invite the readers to interact with the data, formulate their own questions, and seek answers. Along this journey, we will share some observations and interpretations.

Read more about our methodology

The global view

Crime and domestic violence concerns rise steadily. Talk of employment, financial disputes, and issues with medical bills grew at the peak of the pandemic but has since decreased.

Crime and domestic violence

Globally, talk of crime and domestic violence on social media has increased steadily since the start of the global pandemic in March. This trend is consistent with HiiL’s COVID-19 expert survey findings, which anticipated spikes in crime and domestic violence in low- and middle-income countries. In July, mentions of these problem types declined slightly. This may be due to summer re-openings that made it easier for people to access social services and receive assistance for their crime and domestic violence-related needs.

Financial, medical and
employment disputes

Mentions of medical bill disputes, financial disputes, and employment disputes also began to rise in February but peaked between March and April. Mentions of employment disputes increased noticeably between June and July. Mentions of other problem types have remained relatively stable during the COVID-19 crisis.

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Country deep dives

The peak of mentions of justice problems followed by 2 to 3 months the peak of the COVID-19 messages.

In the charts that follow, we zoom in on social media trends in nine countries where HiiL works and observe how justice problems have been talked about in those specific places.

Justice problem mentions peak in May, June and July

An interesting trend appears when we compare messages about the COVID-19 crisis and messages about justice problems. The peak of COVID-19-related messages is in March, when the pandemic became global. A lag appears when we look at messages about justice problem – they peak in May, June, and July. This trend is particularly visible in countries with large volumes of messages – South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya.

One interpretation of this lag is that the pandemic was the root cause of many justice problems around the world. It does not take long for people to feel the justice implications of COVID-19. The big question is: how will the trends in justice problem mentions change over time? Will they subside, maintain the current levels, or increase?

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Mentions of justice problems increased in South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda

Mentions of justice problems increased dramatically in South Africa and Nigeria between the months of April and June. Justice problems were also mentioned more frequently than usual in Kenya during the same period. Between June and July, talk of justice problems in these three countries has started to decline.

In Uganda, mentions of justice problems on social media increased slightly after March but have since returned to pre-COVID-19 levels. In other countries, justice problems were not discussed more than usual on social media during the COVID-19 crisis.

Crime is the most commonly mentioned justice problem on social media in Lebanon, Mali, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia. In Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria, housing disputes are most often talked about. In South Africa, social media mentions of justice problems mostly relate to employment disputes.

In six out of the nine countries, crime and domestic violence are among the top most frequently talked about justice problems. This is consistent with the global dataset, which shows a post-COVID-19 spike in these two problem types. Financial and employment disputes, which were also talked about more after the onset of the pandemic in the global data, were also among the top five most mentioned problems in seven out of the nine focus countries.

The focus on financial and employment disputes on social media globally and in the countries where HiiL works can likely be attributed to the global economic recession that followed mass business closures and put many people out of work. Crime and domestic violence mentions are likely related to increased financial distress and strict lockdown policies in many low- and medium-income countries.

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Country view

In the following charts, we invite you to explore the social media data specific to the nine focus countries. By selecting one country or comparing two of them, you can discover which kind of justice problems people talk about most, how that has changed over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, the language people use to describe the problems they are facing, and the way they feel about them (on average).

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Comparison view

In the charts below, you can explore pairs of countries and compare how social media users talk about their justice problems during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Sentiment analysis

Justice problems in COVID-19 have negative connotations. Messages about crime and domestic violence are the most pessimistic.

How people talk about justice on social media

On average, the sentiment score of the messages classified as referring to a justice problem is 38. This is below the middle of the scale and indicates negative feeling. The average sentiment score of the messages classified as COVID-19-related is 45. A 10-point difference is considerable. The implication is that COVID-19 is concerning particularly when people see it in relation to (or as the cause of) a justice problem.

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Sentiment over time

Messages classified in the crime and domestic violence categories have the lowest sentiment score – 27 and 26 respectively – on the scale ranging from 0 to 100. Texts about public benefits, housing disputes, and medical bills have the highest sentiment score. On average, texts about public benefits have a sentiment score of 47. However, this score decreases steadily after March and April 2020. 


Findings: Global level

Mentions of crime and domestic violence rise during the pandemic. People are concerned and anxious.

The increase in global mentions of domestic violence between March and July 2020 is consistent with what we know was happening on the ground: between March and July 2020, lockdown orders caused rates of domestic violence to rise in countries around the world.

The same cannot be said for the most dramatic post-COVID-19 social media trend: the spike in crime problem mentions. Between March and July 2020, talk of crime nearly doubled while actual crime rates fell in several countries.

American criminologists attribute the COVID-19 crime decline to the reality that the majority of crimes in the US are petty offenses committed by young people in peer groups – a type of crime made more difficult by lockdown orders. Meanwhile, rates of more serious offenses are often committed privately (or remotely) by individuals – including domestic violence, serious battery, and homicide – increased between March and July 2020 or remained the same. Similar trends were observed in the UK and Australia.

The discrepancy in social media and crime data suggests that the driver of social media mentions may not be direct experience with the justice problems under study. Rather, rising social media mentions may reflect increased anxiety around crime and domestic violence during the pandemic. The low average sentiment score of 27 and 26 for messages about crime and domestic violence respectively supports the conclusion that they were motivated by negative emotions rather than neutral and objective analysis.

Increased anxiety around crime and domestic violence might be the result of authoritarian COVID-19 measures imposed by some governments, anti-police riots in countries around the world, or a more general climate of uncertainty and disorder created by the pandemic.

It might also be explained by increases in in-home media consumption, including increased engagement with news, streaming services, TV, radio, and messaging services in countries around the world. Social media use in particular has spiked globally during the pandemic. A deluge of information – as well as misinformation – about the virus’ spread and related economic and political insecurity may have triggered increased concerns around crime and domestic violence. 

The same reasoning can be applied to medical bills, financial disputes, and employment problems, which were also discussed more frequently after March 2020 but later leveled out.


Findings: In the nine countries where we zoomed in

Justice problems are felt after the first wave of the pandemic, especially those related to housing and employment.

At the country level, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a significant increase in justice problem mentions on social media in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda. Beginning in April 2020, these numbers spiked dramatically in Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya and began to decline to normal levels in Uganda. 

By contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic has not seemed to have a significant impact on the number of justice problem mentions in Ethiopia, Tunisia, Lebanon, Mali, or Burkina Faso.

Three of the countries that experienced notable increases in justice problem mentions after the onset of the pandemic in March 2020  – Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda – also shared housing as their most frequently discussed justice problem. Meanwhile, South Africans on social media primarily talked about employment problems.

In the four countries where justice problem mentions on social media did not increase noticeably – Ethiopia, Tunisia, Lebanon, Mali, and Burkina Faso – crime problems were the most frequently discussed.


Findings: What social media tell us

More and more people use social media to share views, ideas, and concerns. Justice problems are an important part of the conversation.

With the growing usage of social media, there is a need for more reliable and refined methods to extract knowledge from the vast amount of data. This report is a step towards a better understanding of how people encounter justice problems in their daily life. The results are intriguing. HiiL and its partners will continue working towards evidence-based people-centered justice.

About the authors

Dr. Martin Gramatikov, Director Measuring Justice

Isabella Banks, Justice Sector Advisor


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Delivering Justice in the Covid-19 crisis

Delivering Justice in the
Covid-19 Crisis

We invite you to explore views of thought leaders for your country

Surge of injustice expected Targeted response required to guarantee peace and justice

Thought leaders in the justice sector are concerned about a looming wave of legal problems. They expect incidents of injustice to surge. This may lead to civil unrest in some countries. Business as usual – by courts and police enforcing laws, with legal services available for the few – is unlikely to work. Thought leaders offered clear indications on how courts, ministers of justice and politicians should respond to safely and effectively deliver justice.

The inability to respond in a timely and effective manner to concerns by average citizens will further entrench the perception that the justice system favors the wealthy and the well connected.

Data are needed to guide the response

We invite you to explore views of thought leaders for your country

As a first step, we asked thought leaders in the countries where we work about their views on the impact of Covid-19 on the delivery of justice. Two-hundred and seventy one leaders from more than 20 countries engaged in this dialogue via an online questionnaire.

The respondents have significant experience. Sixty-eight percent have more than 10 years of professional experience and 18% more than 6 years. Twenty-six percent are lawyers, 19% work for NGOs, 13% are judges or prosecutors, 9% are academics and 8% are justice innovators.

The interactive charts below allow you to explore the detailed views of these leaders, country by country.


Immediate response

We first asked what justice institutions did to adapt to the Covid-19 challenge. In many countries, justice institutions were closed (May 2020). Video-conferencing solutions were widely implemented and rules of procedure were changed through emergency laws.

Currently most justice systems are only applying technology to the same inaccessible systems instead of rethinking the entire justice delivery model. Part of the problem is the very rigid regulation that governs justice systems.

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Expected justice problems and impact

Justice needs research carried out before the pandemic shows that the five most prevalent categories of justice problems are land, family, crime, employment and neighbour disputes.

Increase in number of conflicts and disputes

The thought leaders expect a surge in disputes that are directly related to the global economic depression, including business problems, debt, and employment disputes. They also anticipate that the economic crisis and the public health measures will put intense pressure on families and communities, leading to a significant increase in family disputes and domestic violence. Other disputes, including (access to) welfare, health bills and insurance, tax, and housing issues are also expected to increase worldwide. 

The vulnerable will be hit hardest by the crisis. Interventions to increase access to justice should be targeted to address the needs of this group.

Regarding the effect of the pandemic on crime, variation across regions is very significant.

A small increase or even a slight decrease is expected in Europe and other high and middle income nations.

A sharp increase in crime is expected in low and lower-middle income countries (particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa).

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Individual thought leaders also pointed to:

  • Challenges faced by the poor, women & children and people with mental health issues exacerbated by debt caused by the Covid-19 measures
  • Unlawful dismissals and non-payment of wages
  • Serious crimes in military zones
  • Severe economic (inflation) crisis in Lebanon and Syria. Inflation and high costs will lead to an increase of crime
  • Improper/violent enforcement of Covid-19 measures.

The major risk I envisage is that there will be higher imbalance between the justice demands of the society and the ability of justice institutions to respond to such demand.

SMEs will likely encounter more legal problems as well

Bankruptcies, debt disputes, disputes with employees and disputes with suppliers are expected. 

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There is already a body of knowledge about the distribution of legal problems. From the HiiL dataset of justice needs from about 20 countries we know that of the most serious legal problems:

  • 10% are employment disputes
  • 9% are family disputes
  • 7% are debt disputes and
  • 3% are domestic violence.

We also know that around 53% of the 5.5 billion adult people in this world report one or more legal problems every 4 years.

From here we see that roughly there are around 1 billion serious legal problems each year. The justice leaders said that employment, family, debt and domestic violence problems will increase significantly. We will use anticipation in two scenarios – increase of problems with 10% and 25%. The table below predicts the additional global demand for justice caused by the pandemic. Note that the figures are based on several assumptions and should be considered with care.
Scenario 1:
10% increase per 1 million
Scenario 2:
25% increase per 1 million
Domestic Violence

Impact on individuals and societies is substantial; eruptions of violence possible

Covid-19 related problems will cause loss of jobs and income; in countries with a large informal job market or weak employment protection legislation, this has already happened.
Closures of businesses, stress-related illness, and damage to family relationships are already impacting people’s lives as well.

In the MENA region and in Sub-Saharan Africa more than 60% of respondents expect violence as a consequence of the new wave of justice problems.

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Expected outcomes: A widening justice gap

I am concerned that the administration of justice is not proactive enough to deal adequately with swift changes. The courts have been behind for 8 weeks. Compare that to the fast switch in education to online teaching

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  • Respondents are not optimistic about how this surge of additional justice problems will be resolved
  • 70% expect problems to escalate more often
  • Problems are expected to be resolved more often between the parties
  • Solutions are expected to be less fair and achieved less quickly. A large increase in the number of disputes, together with Covid-19-induced inefficiencies, will result in significant additional delays, particularly among low and middle income countries. In sum, the justice gap will widen.

A number of thought leaders reacted emotionally or expressed strong concern:

Increased court dockets act as access to justice barriers.
[Delivery of justice] depends on who is on the other side.
Courts not accommodating urgent cases (i.e. illegal evictions; domestic violence).


Views on remedies needed

More informal and early intervention is expected to help

  • Justice leaders see preventive measures and informal interventions including legal information and advice, assisted negotiation, and mediation as most effective for helping people prevent and resolve the current wave of legal problems.
  • The majority of justice leaders across income levels felt that supply of these interventions should be increased.
    More formal interventions typically offered by the courts (“sanctions”) were broadly believed to be slightly less effective in the COVID-19 climate.
  • This may be due in part to the fact that many formal justice institutions that would normally be responsible for adjudication and sanctioning are closed or operating at very limited capacity.

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A detailed pattern of interventions is believed to deliver peace and justice

When we asked about interventions in detail, we see considerable doubt among justice leaders across regions and income levels about the need for punitive interventions at this time.

More constructive and informal interventions such as respecting, shaping solutions, and restoring were seen as more important for addressing people’s present problems. Two thirds of those surveyed also placed a high value on monitoring outcomes (“improving”). This suggests that in a time of significant uncertainty and change, ensuring the quality and sustainability of interventions that prevent and resolve is a top priority for many leaders in the justice sector.

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Views on service delivery models

[I expect] to learn what works/doesn't work in terms of online collaboration and developing new and improved (informal & digital) procedures.

Community justice courts or services will be in high demand

  • Fast court procedures and legal services by lawyers continue to be valued.
  • But there is even more interest in prioritising community justice and other less conventional service delivery models such as legal apps, online one-stop-shops and community policing.
  • This may be because the local and/or online features of these models make them accessible to greater numbers of people during a time of lockdowns and social distancing.
  • The lack of support for zero-tolerance policies may be linked to increasingly overcrowded prisons, which have proven to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks.

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Lean away from the formal system and increase reliance on community-led justice strategies.

  • Justice leaders from low income countries see apps that prevent violence and fraud as a top priority, while their higher income counterparts consider them relatively unimportant.
  • This may be because protecting people from violence is of greater concern in low income countries.
  • Support for fast courts with adversarial procedures increases with income level. In lower level income countries video-conferencing is not expected to work, and courts may be less accessible anyhow.

Views on system change needed

Views on system change needed

In a recent report, the Task Force on Justice recommended a set of priorities for justice leaders to respond to Covid-19 related challenges.
We asked thought leaders to choose from these priorities.
The resulting ranking varies by region, income level and country but we see that the key elements are:

  • Protecting the justice workforce
  • Increasing innovation and smart working
  • Enforcing emergency measures fairly

[The priority is to] create new procedures that play a more positive role in resolving legal problems.” “Innovative justice delivery through out-of-the-box thinking.” "The challenge is to create a system that balances good service with protection. It means rethinking spaces, procedures and ways of working.

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Thought leaders worldwide identify the need to increase innovation and smart working, as the most important strategy to deal with challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic in the justice sector.

The challenge is how to adapt, how do we give people what they need in an economy like ours. This leads to the opportunity to finally move legal practice into the digital age, but how do we balance this with the truth that most of our population in the rural areas don't have smart phones and computers. Many are elderly and bent over walking sticks trying to fight for their right to a piece of land they desperately know to be theirs. Maybe by implementing technology where possible it will allow for less backlog of cases so that nobody has to go through this at such an age.

In lower income countries, where law and order institutions are assumed to be weaker, the justice leaders identify the need to protect people from violence as an equally important priority.

In Latin America, where income inequality is among the highest in the world, justice leaders identify the need to enforce emergency measures fairly, as the top priority.

In Europe, where safety concerns are lower than in other regions, and justice services are more equally accessible across segments of the population, the needs to protect the justice workforce, and to prepare for future disease containment phases, are signaled as relatively more important than in other parts of the world.

Other priorities mentioned include:

  • Easily accessible information online
  • Accessible procedures for Covid-19 specific problems
    Access to more affordable or free legal services
  • Prevention of problems through preventive rules and ADR
  • Focus on vulnerable groups such as women, youth, disabled people, poor and sex workers
    Promotion of social cohesion.

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The Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions are a challenge but also an opportunity. It is time when:

The value of justice and the justice system can be demonstrated.

Support the justice workers by way of motivation and necessary tools to be able to support people to get justice.

Technologies such as video-conferencing, e-filing, digital identity etc. can be accepted faster. However, this can lead to divides between digitally literate and not literate people.

Thought leaders recommend flexible regulation of procedures to enable innovation

  • In low and lower-middle income countries, thought leaders consider a legal framework that allows for technological and procedural adaptation in the courts a top priority for enabling the justice system to adapt to the Covid-19 crisis.
  • There is also significant interest in developing and implementing innovative justice delivery models and services.
  • Without courts to deliver justice as usual, new ways of meeting people’s justice needs at scale are recognised as sorely needed.

Financial models and structural reforms are also mentioned as priorities

In higher income countries, new and more sustainable financial models are a priority. There is less sense of urgency around more ambitious and structural reforms, such as rethinking roles and responsibilities between justice sector organisations and public/private cooperation in relation to investment. Thought leaders across income levels seem to consider practical adaptations of the justice system more important than creative realignments of relationships and responsibilities in the sector at this time.

Views on capabilities of justice leaders to cope with challenges

Satisfaction with response until now is not high

31% of the thought leaders are (very) satisfied with the justice sector’s response to the crisis.. 45% are (very) dissatisfied, and a quarter are neither satisfied or dissatisfied. In the Latin American region justice leaders’ perception of the system’s response to this crisis is slightly better than in other regions (close to half are satisfied and a third dissatisfied).

Justice leaders may need to invest in skills, relationships and coordination processes

Finally, we also asked whether the justice leaders in your country have the necessary skills, relationships and coordination processes to respond effectively to the Covid-19 crisis.

13% strongly disagrees that they do and a further 36% disagrees.

Almost a quarter of respondents remain undecided about the capacity of their leaders.

It may be that the COVID-19 crisis has not been going on long enough for experts to make an assessment of the performance and capacity of their justice leaders.

Political leadership [is needed] to adapt existing institutions and processes to needs of people who want to resolve disputes quickly and effectively


Summary of findings and implications

Summary of findings and implications

Based on these opinions of thought leaders, the justice gap is expected to increase.

The impact of justice problems will be considerable, with large scale violence being a substantial risk in a number of countries.

Courts, police and other justice services will have to adapt their services, focusing on interventions that are most likely to resolve or prevent an additional wave of justice problems.

Just rendering decisions and imposing sanctions is unlikely to work.

The situation asks for a richer and more accessible portfolio of interventions, delivered locally, online or in communities.

Developing innovative service delivery models is seen as the main way forward.
In light of the sheer size of the challenges ahead, it is not surprising that justice leaders are thought to benefit from new skills, relationships and coordination processes.


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