Commentary

False Health Content More Popular On Social Media

“A lie goes halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling on its pants,” as the old saying goes, and when it comes to social media the truth may barely get out the door. A new study of social media sharing patterns, focusing on content about the Zika virus outbreak, found that reports containing incorrect information were far more likely to be shared online than correct ones.

In the study, titled “Zika virus pandemic—analysis of Facebook as a social media health information platform” and published in the American Journal of Infection Control, researchers analyzed the 200 most popular Facebook posts and videos about the Zika virus by U.S. Facebook users in May and June 2016, as determined by the number of views, shares and comments.

The study found that 81% of the posts about Zika were accurate. However, the remaining 19% contained inaccuracies or propagated conspiracy theories, including 12% which were actively misleading, for example suggesting that Zika was a hoax or a plot to depopulate the developing world – and these were much more likely to be shared across the social network.

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In one example, the study noted that the most-shared credible post, a WHO press briefing, was shared by 964 Facebook accounts and received 43,000 views. By contrast, a post claiming that Zika is a hoax was shared by 19,600 Facebook accounts and racked up over 530,000 views.

The authors noted that some of the most-shared posts contained statements running counter to advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For instance, anyone who believes that Zika is a hoax would be unlikely to take even minimal precautions recommended by the health orgs.

Back in 2014 I wrote about another study, titled “Community Intelligence and Social Media Services: A Rumor Theoretic Analysis of Tweets During Social Crises,” which showed how social media served to spread a variety of falsehoods in the wake of major events including terrorist attacks in India in 2008, the Toyota recalls due to faulty accelerator panels in 2009-2010, and a mass shooting which killed five people in Seattle in 2012.

In January 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 disorganized, panicked mass evacuations resulting in thousands of deaths.
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