Sixteen years ago, a study alleged an association between the MMR vaccine and autism. The authors disclosed in their publication that they could not claim a causal link, and the paper was eventually found to be faulty and was retracted. Nonetheless, flaws and all, the information was made visible and still today, anti-vaccine sentiments continue to rekindle the paper’s alarming claims, plus additional concerns. Anxious parents persistently echo one another’s worries through blogs, video-sharing websites, and other social media platforms, which too often contradict scientific consensus and current knowledge. A small but mighty group of doubting individuals are dismantling decades of life-saving research and successful health policy.
Disturbingly, content errors and false information tend to linger, even following subsequent correction. Particularly in the face of highly charged and emotional topics, individuals can become even more unwilling to revise their beliefs. When virtually anyone anywhere can publish anything online, people have little difficulty finding support to back any belief, creating a digital “corrupted information environment” one blog, share, and tweet at a time. We are entering an age of digital pandemics: rapid spread of misguided and incomplete online health information that has resulted in unsubstantiated confusion around some of public health’s greatest achievements, such as vaccines, contraception, and fluoridated drinking water.
We are witnessing an accentuated Kruger and Dunning effect, namely that unskilled people are also unaware that they are unskilled. Individuals are crafting convincing and persuasive arguments riddled with empirical citations and links to scientific studies. However, they ultimately lack the sophisticated skillset required for deeper interpretation of their own sources within the context of the larger issue. Without formal expertise, they are unable to move from the basic stages of knowledge, comprehension, and even application to advanced strategies for accurate analysis, synthesis and evaluation of the subtle yet significant complexities embedded in the scientific method. Put simply, a clever compilation from Google does not qualify one as a health expert any more than possession of a fine camera makes one a photographer.
These shortcomings go unnoticed while their confidence motivates readers to action. Ultimately, they are unable to recognize the larger harm their social media “publications” are causing in the absence of information porters such as the peer-review process or expert consensus. Now that over half of adults turn to the internet for health information, including using social networking sites, the hosts of these digital pandemics are becoming easily accessible and their content is proving contagious. Conversely, the most competent experts often underestimate their own competence, the “burden of expertise;” in part because scientific competence requires open acknowledgment of limitations in order to discover accurate truths. But on a public forum, citing any limitation, even as a requisite for the scientific process, attracts the naysayers who predictably share it across the web without context, and thus without accurate meaning. When searching #fluoride on Twitter for example, we discover, at surface level, an evenly matched digital Clash of the Titans: the proficient yet restrained domain expert versus the unskilled but vociferous lay person touting content that is masquerading as science but is actually nothing more than shallow advocacy. It’s no wonder the public has become confused and distrustful.
Clearly, social media is an expanding worldwide phenomenon. Yet, little is known about the precise mechanisms at play at the interface of social media and high-level global health strategies. Why does some content “go viral” when others don’t? Key findings include factors like an innate desire to share, emotion, storytelling, and public access- aspects that are perfectly ripe for success across social media. Yet, these aspects are also in direct conflict with the gold standard for acquiring, conveying, and applying scientific knowledge: objectivity, avoidance of conclusions based on anecdotal accounts, and publication in private peer-reviewed journals.
Despite its shortcomings, social media can provide public health experts with answers that once were private yet now are public: individuals, along with sharing misinformation, are also sharing their most intimate sentiments about that information. In the past, interviews and conversations would have been necessary to uncover the numerous and highly nuanced reasons why individuals oppose particular public health interventions. Today, on the very websites publishing information that infuriate the experts also exist literally thousands of personal concerns made public for all to see, and minus researcher bias. The public nature of social media is perhaps our utmost barrier to information accuracy and yet a tremendous untapped resource for public health research, innovation, and intervention.
Brittany Seymour is an Instructor on Global Health at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine’s Department of Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology and the Inaugural Harvard Global Health Institute Fellow. Her research includes interdisciplinary global health curriculum development and pedagogy, capacity strengthening for oral health delivery systems in resource-challenged regions, and digital information transfer and impacts on health.