The first system-level picture of nearly 100 million individuals expressing vaccine views among Facebook’s 3 billion users across 37 countries, continents and languages.
Researchers warn scientists are fighting health misinformation in the wrong place
Communities on Facebook that distrust establishment health guidance are more effective than government health agencies and other reliable health groups at reaching and engaging “undecided” individuals, according to a first-of-its-kind study published today by researchers at George Washington University and other institutions in the journal Nature.
The researchers tracked the vaccine conversation among 100 million Facebook users during the height of the 2019 measles outbreak. The new study and its “battleground” map reveal how distrust in establishment health guidance could spread and dominate online conversations over the next decade, potentially jeopardizing public health efforts to protect populations from COVID-19 and future pandemics through vaccinations.
Professor Neil Johnson and his GW research team, including professor Yonatan Lupu and researchers Nicolas Velasquez, Rhys Leahy and Nico Restrepo, collaborated with researchers at the University of Miami, Michigan State University and Los Alamos National Laboratory to better understand how distrust in scientific expertise evolves online, especially related to vaccines.
“There is a new world war online surrounding trust in health expertise and science, particularly with misinformation about COVID-19, but also distrust in big pharmaceuticals and governments,” Dr. Johnson said. “Nobody knew what the field of battle looked like, though, so we set to find out.”
During the 2019 measles outbreak, the research team examined Facebook communities, totaling nearly 100 million users, which were active around the vaccine topic and which formed a highly dynamic, interconnected network across cities, countries, continents and languages. The team identified three camps comprising pro-vaccination communities, anti-vaccination communities and communities of undecided individuals such as parenting groups. Starting with one community, the researchers looked to find a second one that was strongly entangled with the original, and so on, to better understand how they interacted with each other.
They discovered that, while there are fewer individuals with anti-vaccination sentiments on Facebook than with pro-vaccination sentiments, there are nearly three times the number of anti-vaccination communities on Facebook than pro-vaccination communities. This allows anti-vaccination communities to become highly entangled with undecided communities, while pro-vaccination communities remain mostly peripheral. In addition, pro-vaccination communities that focused on countering larger anti-vaccination communities may be missing medium-sized ones growing under the radar.
The researchers also found anti-vaccination communities offer more diverse narratives around vaccines and other established health treatments — promoting safety concerns, conspiracy theories or individual choice, for example — that can appeal to more of Facebook’s approximately 3 billion users, thus increasing the chances of influencing individuals in undecided communities. Pro-vaccination communities, on the other hand, mostly offered monothematic messaging typically focused on the established public health benefits of vaccinations. The GW researchers noted that individuals in these undecided communities, far from being passive bystanders, were actively engaging with vaccine content.
“We thought we would see major public health entities and state-run health departments at the center of this online battle, but we found the opposite. They were fighting off to one side, in the wrong place,” Dr. Johnson said.
As scientists around the world scramble to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine, the spread of health disinformation and misinformation has important public health implications, especially on social media, which often serves as an amplifier and information equalizer.
In their study, the GW researchers proposed several different strategies to fight against online disinformation, including influencing the heterogeneity of individual communities to delay onset and decrease their growth and manipulating the links between communities in order to prevent the spread of negative views.
“Instead of playing whack-a-mole with a global network of communities that consume and produce (mis)information, public health agencies, social media platforms and governments can use a map like ours and an entirely new set of strategies to identify where the largest theaters of online activity are and engage and neutralize those communities peddling in misinformation so harmful to the public,” Dr. Johnson said.
The Latest Updates from Bing News & Google News
Go deeper with Bing News on:
- Does the internet harm health?
I would take issue with the statement that there is almost no evidence to support the claim that the internet harms health. 1 A search of Medline, for example, identifies a report in the Annals of ...
- UW-Madison researchers awarded $750,000 grant to combat COVID-19 and 2020 election misinformation
A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers won a $750,000 grant intended to combat misinformation about COVID-19 and the 2020 election on Oct. 1. The grant will fund a project that will ...
- Hospital chaplain, pastor calls out COVID-19 misinformation
Pastor Keith Thomas works as a hospital chaplain. He said his experience on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic have fueled his efforts to promote safety measures because he’s seen too many ...
- ‘You are not a horse’: Spread of misinformation leads to drug shortage for vet clinic
Popularization of a drug that some are using as a way to treat COVID-19 has created increased demand for the veterinary form of the medicine in Las Vegas, some veterinary medicine practitioners ...
- Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors Declare COVID-19 Misinformation a Public Health Crisis
The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously declared COVID-19 misinformation an urgent public health crisis, directing County Health to actively correct vaccine myths and other ...
Go deeper with Google Headlines on:
Go deeper with Bing News on:
- Facebook is a public health hazard
Last Tuesday, former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee, putting words to what we all knew but couldn’t quite articulate: ...
- State health board may punish doctors who spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccine
The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners adopted a policy during its September meeting to punish physicians who generate false information concerning the COVID-19 vaccination.
- Dems Blast GOP For ‘Disinformation,’ Urge Taking $27M To Boost Vaccination Rate
Four state Representatives, two of whom are physicians with one a recent convert to the Democratic party, urged the Joint Fiscal Committee and Executive Council on Tuesday to accept $27 million in ...
- Schools are new battleground in war of disinformation over Covid-19 vaccines
The rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations to schoolchildren in the United Kingdom has opened up a new front in the disinformation war: anti-vax campaigners are now taking their protests to the school gates ...
- Thuli Madonsela’s social justice summit, ending child marriages, gender equity in health and marking World Food Day
From the basic income grant and disinformation, to vaccine uptake and world hunger, this is your week in civil society.