In this edition of “The Wired Practice,” Ron Harman King of Vanguard Communications discusses health misinformation on social media, especially Facebook.
Watch the video on MedPage Today
It’s up to all of us to combat Facebook misinformation
In this age of internet ubiquity, is any topic generating greater vexation than social media, especially Facebook? Facebook – the platform everyone seems to loathe yet some two-and-a-half billion people use every month.
For a sterling example of Facebook-induced ire, I direct your attention to this recent MedPage Today essay by Dr. Vinay Prasad. In his piece Dr. Prasad takes issue with Facebook’s selection of scientific advisors of HealthFeedback.org for factchecking COVID-19 information. Who is HealthFeedback? I don’t know other than what it says on its website, that it’s a French-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the credibility of science-related information online and in the media.
Knowledge A following is power
Dr. Prasad’s complaint is that the HealthFeedback fact-checkers are, and I quote, “disproportionately academics on Twitter who have mega-follower counts. They mostly have similar worldviews and advertise those views on Twitter.” His suspicion is that Facebook editors choose fact-checkers more for their popularity on social media than for scientific credentials and therefore also likely make the selections according to their own unscientific biases.
Well, Dr. Prasad’s essay unleashed a flurry of Facebook condemnation by readers. Quite a few join Dr. Prasad in boycotting social media because, to quote Dr. Prasad’s take on Facebook, it is “a sea of garbage, illogical arguments, false claims, [and] harmful views.”
Yep. I couldn’t agree more. That’s not only a largely accurate description of Facebook but also of many of the dinner conversations I’ve been hearing at holiday celebrations for years.
Spreading misinformation is nothing new, but a single person’s reach is greater than ever
The fact is, however, that scientific illiteracy existed for centuries before social media. The internet has just made it easier to spread misinformation farther and faster. As evidence, consider a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
The study reviewed 69 English-language studies on health information in social media. Researchers found posts with health misinformation reaching as high as 87% of the total. Misinformation about vaccines appeared in 43% of posts.
Yes, that’s a problem. Somebody should do something about it. But who?
Find your tribe
For me, the best answer comes probably unintentionally from a commenter on Dr. Prasad’s essay who lists a Ph.D. after his name. His response was, and I quote, “Dr. Prasad is correct that we are essentially allowing social media tribal pollution to gradually replace independent, scientifically informed and consensually validated thought and opinion.”
Again, I couldn’t agree more. And who is the “we” allowing this? In my book it’s as much the people with titles such as Ph.D. and MD as anyone else. These are the human storehouses of scientific knowledge and wisdom. They are members of their own tribe, of highly educated specialists who, in my humble opinion, too often sit on the sidelines of public discourse.
They are also the most publicly respected tribe. Year after year, public polling places nurses, physicians, pharmacists and scientists at the top of the most trusted professions.
Then why don’t we hear from more of them on social media? In my work with, for, and alongside thousands of scientists and healthcare providers for three decades, I’ve heard many members of the tribe – perhaps the majority – express a perplexing conviction. That is, that it’s their job to counter scientific misinformation only in the clinic. In short, the implication is often, “I’m too busy.”
But even before the internet, sharing complex medical information with a lay patient in a 15- or 20-minute exam room encounter had limited efficacy. There were wildly popular but useless home remedies long before Google and Facebook and the rest, remember?
Let’s stick with the FACTS
With all this in mind, I’m proposing members of the tribe take a pledge today. I’m calling it the Facebook Anti-Misinformation Campaign for Truth in Science Pledge. You may notice the acronym is F-A-C-T-S: FACTS. Nice coincidence, eh?
By taking the FACTS Pledge you agree to get a Facebook or Twitter account, if you don’t already have one, and start posting. Once a week is plenty. Twice is better.
Here’s all you have to do. Pick any article or essay of popular interest published in a reputable journal – JAMA, New England Journal of Medicine, British Medical Journal. Or peruse the websites of the NIH, CDC, World Health Organization or Mayo Clinic. Then repost your choice to Twitter or Facebook and add a brief comment. There. Done in 15 minutes.
That amounts to one hour a month. Yes, the FACTS Pledge is a commitment, but a small commitment. If it’s more than you can make, then find a FACTS Pledge buddy and split the job. Either way, consider the alternative, which is to allow lesser informed tribes to rule the conversation.
To be sure, one person’s FACTS Pledge won’t make a hill of beans. But don’t overlook the fact that some 6 million physicians and nurses work in American healthcare. Even a fraction of the total taking the FACTS Pledge would have substantial impact.
The smart kids are battling Facebook misinformation
You would also be in very good company. Big-time social-media players in healthcare include the venerable Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, MD Anderson Cancer Center, UCLA Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, WebMD and the World Health Organization. Each boasts from 352,000 to 13 million Facebook followers. On an individual level, Johns Hopkins neonatologist Dr. Jennifer Arnold has amassed nearly 1 million Facebook fans.
Thankfully, others in the medical and scientific community are joining the proactive approach. For example, not long ago some 30 healthcare professionals, including an epidemiologist and an infectious disease specialist, formed a group on Reddit – the sixth-most popular social networking app in the U.S. – to moderate and address coronavirus misinformation on that platform. The group attracted more than 1.2 million unique users in the first two weeks.
Social media are where the world’s eyes and ears are. There are nearly 800 times as many Facebook users worldwide as people who have died from COVID-19. Less than 2% went to medical or nursing school.
Let’s not hoard knowledge. Please, take the FACTS Pledge. You have knowledge and wisdom. You have a voice. Use it. Slow the spread of Facebook misinformation. Please.