As scary as established diseases may be, there’s something even more terrifying about new ones, especially when they’re infectious and somewhat mysterious (HIV, Ebola, and SARS leap to mind). While the Zika virus isn’t new in itself, its rapid spread in South America and likely jump to the U.S. are novel enough to inspire the same kind of fear – and with fear, unfortunately, comes rumor and misinformation, including some pretty bizarre conspiracy theories.
Predictably social media is one of the main vectors for the spread of false beliefs about Zika – but on the plus side social media technology also allows public health authorities to identify these rumors and, hopefully, dispel them via the same platforms. On that note a new study by researchers at George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Georgia documents some of the most popular (and damaging) misconceptions about Zika on social media, showing how they are propagated and suggesting ways to combat them.
By analyzing Twitter conversations in real time over the first four months of this year, the researchers uncovered a number of alarmingly inaccurate and baseless allegations. For example, one conspiracy theory prevalent on social media holds that microcephaly (babies born with small heads and brains) is actually the result of pregnant women getting the MMR vaccine, and pharmaceutical companies are supposedly covering this up to make money by selling Zika vaccines to adults.
Although this is transparently false (where were all the MMR-induced cases of microcephaly before?) for poorly educated first-time parents in developing countries with little experience of vaccines, it may be sufficient to deter them from getting either the MMR or Zika vaccines.
Happily, social media also offers the means to correct misconceptions about disease, the authors point out, by allowing public health workers to swiftly identify the inaccurate rumors and intervene before they have a chance to spread and gain acceptance. One author, Prof. David Broniatowski of George Washington University, stated: “This is a promising approach to the fast response to disease, and could help counteract the negative impact of these conspiracy theories in future.”
Of course, social media’s faculty for spreading rumors and falsehoods extends far beyond disease. In fact, in 2013, a report from the World Economic Forum warned that deliberate or accidental spreading of misinformation, termed “digital wildfires” by the report, could result in mass stock sell-offs as well as even more serious consequences like panicked mass evacuations. Subsequently some academics have suggested that governments need to create emergency response systems to swiftly dispel misinformation online.