November 6, 2016 by Paul Dughi
Admit it. You sometimes read weird stuff on Facebook — even if you know it might not be true.
Combine the facts that more people say they get news from Facebook and that Facebook isn’t in the business of verifying truth and you get a potentially dangerous combination of bad info being put out there and spreading like a virus.
And when it comes to spreading bad information, it can be double dangerous when it’s about health… especially when it’s about a literal virus.
When it comes to health information — sometimes important information that could help in decreasing the spread of a disease and tamp down the panic that ensues — people are more likely to share false information than credible information.
When Zika first started to be a big thing and people started to take notice, researchers decided to keep an eye on social media and see how information started to filter out. They tracked any mention they could find on Zika and then ranked the 200 most popular posts (views, shares, comments).
“We found that the misleading posts were far more popular than the posts dispersing accurate, relevant public health information about the disease.” — Megha Sharma, MD, co-author
The results were published in the American Journal of Infection Control. While the researches found than 4/5ths of the posts to Facebook did contain credible information (from news agencies or the Center for Disease Control), the remaining (inaccurate or misleading) generated the most buzz.
Here’s an example: The claim that genetically-modified mosquitoes are responsible for the spread of Zika.
The theory has been debunked, but people still believe it. About 25% in a recent survey said they though Genetically Modified mosquitoes are the reason for Zika. That’s particularly troubling when releasing modified mosquitoes may be the best bet for fighting the disease.
The most shared (credible) post was a World Health Organization video that was viewed more than 20,000 times and shared by nearly a thousand Facebook users. Compare that to a post saying Zika is a fraud. That post was viewed more than half a million times and shared by nearly 20,000 people.
Slightly less than 12% of the posts contained inaccurate and/or misleading information. Most of the posts saying Zika was a fraud either claimed the disease itself was a hoax or spread the conspiracy theory that Zika was a way to kill off people in developing countries.
Or this one, that said Americans are immune to Zika.
OK, so we like to gossip. We like the oddities we find. And a lot of us like conspiracy theories… even if it’s just to comment and say they are BS. We still take the time to read them. Sometimes, I like to call them out just so I can show I’m not stupid enough to believe them… but by doing so, I am inadvertently giving them a renewed life. The more popular something is — judged by shares, posts, comments, repost, etc — the more it gets priority in other people’s feeds.
BTW, here’s the WHO video with accurate information that has now been watched more than 33,000 times — just 6% of the times the most misleading social media post was viewed.
It also puts social media, particularly Facebook, right back in the conversation:
- What is Facebook’s role in disseminating information.
- Does Facebook have a greater responsibility than it takes to provide accurate information?
While CEO Mark Zukerberg has repeatedly said FB is a social platform and not a news source, other ask if it doesn’t have a responsibility to stop spreading false information.
The task to verify information would be enormous given the amount of crap that gets posted everyday and is building an algorithm to do that even possible?
The other side of the story
Social media isn’t always bad when it comes to health news, though. More than 60 million people found out — via Twitter about the first Ebola outbreak in West Africa three days before anybody official announced it.
Researchers from the Columbia University School of Nursing in New York analyzed over 42,000 Ebola-related tweets posted to the social networking site Twitter the week in which Nigeria reported the first case of Ebola.
Sierra Leone declared a national state of emergency and the first American was diagnosed with Ebola. Twitter got the news of Ebola cases out prior to official announcements from the Nigerian Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During the three days prior to an official announcement from the Nigerian Ministry of Health nearly 1,500 tweets were disseminated regarding Ebola.
“Twitter adoption in African countries like Nigeria has been exponentially increasing and it’s clear that Twitter is a useful resource for spreading breaking health news in these West African countries.” — Michelle Odlum, Sunmoo Yoon, study co-authors, Columbia School of Nursing