Health care professionals battle misinformation ‘infodemic’ on internet, social media
Health care professionals are flocking to social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, to make sure people understand the truth when it comes to their health.
Social media bots, search engine optimization and the spread of misinformation have made it more challenging than ever for people to find accurate and helpful information about their health, according to Jen Gunter, MD, an OB-GYN and pain medicine physician in San Francisco and author of The Vagina Bible. Gunter has more than 323,000 followers on Twitter.
“It’s very difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not,” Gunter told Healio. “When something looks very reputable and it’s all written in the same language, how does the consumer tell the difference?”
The problem of health misinformation has been amplified in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It led Eve D. Bloomgarden, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the division of endocrinology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and six other physician-parents in the Chicago area to form the Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team (IMPACT), a coalition of all-volunteer, physicians and health care professionals working to identify and meet the needs of Illinois health care workers and communities during the pandemic.
“There are good resources of information out there,” Bloomgarden told Healio. “It can be hard to know what to trust because the nature of science, especially science that is completely new, is always changing.”
Gunter has a large following on social media and Bloomgarden has helped physicians reach thousands of people through IMPACT, but health care providers do not need to have a big audience to make a difference. There are several ways providers can reach individuals on a smaller scale to help fight against misinformation.
How misinformation finds a home
Gunter said people gravitating to the internet for health information is a good thing, as it shows they care about their health and want to read more outside of an appointment with a provider.
“It’s good to learn more,” Gunter said. “Most people have limited time with their physician. You have 15 minutes, sometimes less, and they want to look more things up, they want to make sure what they were told was correct. Of course, people are scared and worried, and it’s 3 a.m. and their doctor’s appointment isn’t for 5 days, so what do they do? They go online and look.”
The internet is much like a library, Gunter said.
“People go to the library for information. When you walk into a library, there are books there that are not good, that are filled with bad information, and there’s some that are filled with correct information. With a traditional library, you have a librarian to curate things for you, and with the internet, there’s nobody curating quality. Many publications often want to write about what’s popular, so it all becomes just sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Gunter said one way misinformation is spread is through websites that appear to have informational health articles, but whose purpose is to promote a false medical conspiracy or sell a product. Providers should make sure individuals are aware of this and guide them away from these types of websites.
“People should never get information from a site that sells products, ever,” Gunter said. “If you’re on a site, and they also have a store, you can’t get information. Would you get your information about osteoporosis from the drug company? No. They might have good information, but it’s going to be biased to some degree.”
Conspiracy theories and medical misinformation also find their way onto social media, where ideas can quickly proliferate and be viewed by thousands of users because of sharing and re-tweeting. Gunter said some misinformation is not necessarily shared by real people, but instead by bots designed to intentionally spread misleading ideas.
“If you go back to looking at some of the books written in the 1990s, there’s definitely been medical conspiracy theories around forever,” Gunter said. “When the smallpox vaccine came out and they were going to have mass vaccination in England, there were all these anti-vaccination people. It’s been there forever. The difference with social media is that it has given it a voice to amplify.”
Those amplified voices have caused plenty of frustration for providers, especially with the advent of COVID-19. In response, some health care professionals are beginning to fight back.
COVID-19, fake health news and IMPACT
During the early days of the pandemic in March, a group of parent-physicians in the greater Chicago area became concerned about what they were seeing in their local area. Packed events full of people without masks, long lines of unmasked travelers at O’Hare International Airport and more sparked the group to start IMPACT, an organization that focuses on disseminating and amplifying evidence-based science around public health issues using social media and communication as a tool to spread accurate information.
According to Bloomgarden, throughout the pandemic, IMPACT has had three main goals: transmit accurate information on COVID-19 to the community, communicate information and health-based information to government officials at the state and national levels, and fight the “infodemic,” a term Bloomgarden uses to describe misinformation about COVID-19.
Bloomgarden did not have a large social media presence before COVID-19, but health misinformation is nothing new for her. She said information about her specialty, thyroid, includes a lot of poor information on different treatment pathways. However, the misinformation she dealt with previously paled in comparison to what she has seen in 2020.
“I’ve never seen anything like what’s going on with COVID,” Bloomgarden said. “And I’ve never seen it so widespread. Part of that is because messaging has been very disrupted. The entire response to the pandemic has been a patchwork of good and bad plans that had no coordination to them. There’s a lot of distrust already because there’s no national response. It was the perfect breeding ground.”
IMPACT has used all its resources to combat misinformation. In response to statements from Scott Atlas, MD, of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a White House coronavirus adviser, about the lack of efficacy of masks, the inability of children to transmit COVID-19, and herd immunity as the best response to COVID-19, IMPACT drafted a long statement. The statement argued against Atlas’ claims and included links backing up the organization’s information. It was shared on IMPACT’s social media channels as well as by partners. Even with this effort, Bloomgarden said it is difficult to get the message across.
“It’s exhausting, the volume and sheer magnitude of the number of sick patients and people dying is exhausting, and then fighting this infodemic is exhausting,” she said. “We want people to remember that and to treat us with a little bit of empathy and kindness like we’re trying to give back.”
How to fight the ‘infodemic’
Health care professionals do not need to have a large social media following to help guide the public toward accurate health information. Gunter said they can do it within their own practice.
“Every single provider should be giving their patients links about sites that they want their people to go to,” Gunter said. “It depends on your patient population, but have two or three sites that you think are reputable.”
Gunter also recommended providing links to a couple of popular news sites that tend to get health news and information correct, such as Vox or The New York Times.
Providers can also use social media to combat health misinformation, even if they have only a small group of followers or a private profile.
“People who are not interested in being out there like I am, maybe they have a personal Facebook account or personal Instagram account,” Gunter said. “They can simply just share quality information that they come across.”
Bloomgarden said health care professionals should not be afraid to speak up in social media groups if they see misinformation being spread.
“If somebody is posting something as a question, then it is an easy dialogue,” Bloomgarden said. “If someone is saying, ‘See, I told you so. Masking doesn’t work and the virus is a hoax,’ then you have to come down kind of strongly. You don’t blame the individual; you blame the idea. You need to be kind, but I feel like I have a responsibility as a physician and as a parent to just call that out.”
Bloomgarden advised people from outside the health care profession to be cognizant of where they are getting their information from and to consult with a health care professional in their circle of family or friends if they are unsure about the validity of information.
“Before you share something, know the source,” Bloomgarden said. “Don’t share something because of the headline. Look into it first before you click or retweet or post. Who wrote this piece? Does this jive with what seems to be true? If you don’t have the scientific expertise, what are your scientifically inclined family members saying about this piece? Being intentional about sharing and amplifying is a big piece of this. Everyone has a responsibility to really cultivate what they’re looking at and what you’re sharing with others.”
IMPACT releases statement in response to Dr. Scott Atlas’s recent statements. 2020. Available at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5e80f9e9abd507573ed7f6c0/t/5f93415abf7fb6352aa52f28/1603486043339/Atlas+statement.pdf.
For more information:
Jen Gunter, MD, can be reached at https://drjengunter.com; Twitter: @DrJenGunter
IMPACT can be reached at www.impact4hc.com; Twitter: @IMPACT4HC