“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge,” says author John Naisbitt. Social media is a platform where information surrounds us without barriers. Since the early 2000’s, there has been a 64% increase in medical professionals joining social media sites for professional use (Ventola 2014). It is tempting to obtain medical advice from a professional in 30 seconds or less on social media, but, what if what you are actually receiving is misinformation? Misinformation can be defined as inadvertent false information, rather than intently false information (Wang et al. 2019).
“In order to stop the alarming spread of medical misinformation, we must first understand why internet users are inundated with this misinformation and how media sites perpetuate it.”
As Dr. Heidi Larson, professor of anthropology, explains, medical misinformation and manipulation is a global public health threat (Larson 2018). Further, we are experiencing an infodemic: an epidemic of false and nonscientific medical information on the internet (Cuan-Baltazar 2020). In order to stop the alarming spread of medical misinformation, we must first understand why internet users are inundated with this misinformation and how media sites perpetuate it.
Doctors and other medical professionals realize that an important way to connect with patients is through social media. Physicians use social media professionally to connect with patients, issue medical information, and display their research (Chretien and Kind 2013). This, however, only works when social media sites require that doctors provide their credentials when posting this information (Chretien and Kind 2013). This is not typical for social media sites; most popular social media sites such as Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok do not have a software that requires these credentials (Chretien and Kind 2013). This has the potential to undermine the benefits stemming from physicians’ use of social media.
There has been a rise of people who have false epistemic knowledge, or a false sense of being a scientific expert, leading to the spread of medical misinformation (Scheufele and Krause 2019). This sequence of misinformation spread involves three parties: agent, message, and interpreter (Wang et al. 2019). The agent is the unlicensed creator, the message is the medical misinformation, and the interpreter is the person absorbing the misinformation. The interpreter is indubitably the most significant as the interpreter’s response controls the spread of this misinformation (Wang et al. 2019). Primarily, we discern trustworthiness through tone of voice and confidence rather than fact checking—if a person reports information using medical jargon and confidence, we are inclined to believe them. Therefore, this three part equation has the potential to catalyze the spread of medical misinformation.
Why are many social media users so vulnerable to this misinformation? What makes some users more likely to spread this false information? Confirmation bias, a phenomenon that leads people to seek information that validates their preexisting beliefs, is one answer (Wang et al. 2019). As the Pew Research Center reports, 35% of Americans use the internet to discover if they have a medical condition (Varga 2020). Further, the study, “Why do people spread false information online?” from Professor John Buchanan at University of Westminster concludes that those prone to spreading medical misinformation already have attitudes consistent with the information they view (Buchanan 2020). This is an example of the infodemic at work; a wealth of information is not a wealth of knowledge.
Moreover, given that younger adolescents and teenagers are primary users of social media, maturity may play a role in the discernment of information from misinformation. These users are more likely to spread false information as their willingness to fact check or research subject matter further is dependent on their interest in the subject matter, which is not prominent for this majority population (Cuan-Baltazar et al. 2020). The study from Professor Buchanan finds that “lower agreeableness and conscientiousness and low age and lower education” are weakly associated with the spread of medical misinformation, showing that the prominent social media users may have a great impact (Buchanan 2020).
Lastly, given the polarized nature of the United States, people are less likely to trust traditional news sources and use social media as their primary source of medical information (Chou and Gaysynsky 2020). A contemporary example is mistrust of the Covid-19 vaccine; as Dr. Broniatowski from George Washington University reports, it takes a picayune amount of people to trust medical misinformation to overturn years of medical work (Burki 2019). Further, given the mistrust and strongly held beliefs in today’s society, many people hold their beliefs over scientific fact, furthering the infodemic by spreading non-factual information (Scheufele and Krause 2019).
The pattern of medical misinformation spread on the internet is ever increasing as it flows through its sequence of agent, message, and interpreter. Given the probability that the interpreter, the most influential component in this equation, is frequently a young adult or someone with strong personal beliefs, the cycle of medical misinformation will continue. Combatting medical misinformation, and the infodemic at large, will take careful and purposeful interventions from medical professionals.
Edited by Nivetha Aravind.
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