How to combat health misinformation online: A research roundup

15 Jun, 2019
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Highlights of an article published by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Center for Media and Policy  Full article here


June 13, 2019

Many Americans are turning to the internet with their health questions. And their use of the internet to seek answers isn’t limited to search engines and established health resources. Researchers at Microsoft analyzed survey and search data to find that “a surprising amount of sensitive health information is also sought and shared via social media.”

While social media helps connect people with similar experiences, it also carries significant pitfalls. In an op-ed published in Nature, Heidi Larson, an anthropologist and director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, writes: “The deluge of conflicting information, misinformation and manipulated information on social media should be recognized as a global public-health threat.”

Is it possible to stem the tide of misinformation online? If it is, what are the most effective ways to do so? We turned to a source of high-quality information – peer-reviewed academic research – to look for answers. Below we’ve summarized seven recent academic studies on the efficacy of interventions used to correct health misinformation. It’s worth noting that the first three studies included in this roundup focus on a small group of students from one university. Additionally, all of these studies are behavioral experiments, which tend to have relatively small sample sizes, and are intended to complement other forms of research.

I Do Not Believe You: How Providing a Source Corrects Health Misperceptions Across Social Media Platforms
Vraga, Emily K.; Bode, Leticia. Information, Communication & Society, October 2018.

If you want to debunk misinformation, back up your claims with a source, this study finds. The authors used the case of Zika to test the effects of providing a source to correct misinformation on Facebook and Twitter. They analyzed 271 online survey responses from a sample of students at a large Mid-Atlantic university. Participants were instructed to read a simulated Facebook or Twitter feed and then answer related questions.

The authors conclude by stressing the importance of studying social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter as separate entities and the efficacy of correcting misinformation with a source. “These findings offer hope for planning and implementing social media campaigns to address misperceptions on a range of health and science issues: one’s peers can effectively offer social corrections, so long as they provide a source for their information, on diverse social media platforms,” they write.

See Something, Say Something: Correction of Global Health Misinformation on Social Media
Bode, Leticia; Vraga, Emily K. Health Communication, September 2018.

This study analyzes data collected from a different subset of participants — 136 respondents — from the same survey as the preceding experiment. The researchers showed students three pages of posts on a Facebook feed followed by the fabricated USA Today story about Zika and genetically modified mosquitoes.

The authors suggest that public health authorities might encourage social media users to refute false health information with appropriate sources as a strategy for combating misinformation. “Such an effort may prove more fruitful than attempting to partner with social media platforms to encourage the presence of refuting information in algorithms that produce stories related to health information, especially given the many limitations of such algorithms,” they write.

Using Expert Sources to Correct Health Misinformation in Social Media
Vraga, Emily K.; Bode, Leticia. Science Communication, October 2017.

This study looks at whether the number and source of corrections on social media have differing impacts on users’ belief in misinformation. The researchers analyzed 1,384 online survey responses gathered from students at a large Mid-Atlantic university. The students viewed a simulated Twitter feed and answered questions relating to what they saw.

The researchers find that the correction from the CDC alone was able to reduce misperceptions about the spread of Zika. A single correction from an individual user, on the other hand, did not reduce misperceptions. CDC and individual user pairings also worked to correct misinformation. Further, the researchers find that corrections were more effective among those who believed before the experiment that Zika was caused by genetically modified mosquitos (as measured by survey responses collected prior to the experiment).

On the Benefits of Explaining Herd Immunity in Vaccine Advocacy
Betsch, Cornelia; et al. Nature Human Behavior, March 2017.

When people get vaccinated, they protect themselves and their communities. This concept is called “herd immunity.” Understanding that concept requires an understanding of the individual’s relationship to a larger collective.

With that in mind, the researchers were interested in understanding whether attitudes toward vaccination differ in cultures that are more oriented to the collective rather than the individual. They collected online survey responses from over 2,000 respondents from South Korea, India, Vietnam, Hong Kong, the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands. Participants were recruited through emails sent by researchers, social media and, for the U.S. and India, Amazon Mechanical Turk. Eastern countries were categorized as collectivistic and western countries were categorized as individualistic, a judgment informed by country-specific individualism rankings produced by Hofstede Insights, a research firm focusing on cultural management.

Prevention Is Better than Cure: Addressing Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories
Jolley, Daniel; Douglas, Karen M. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, August 2017.

This study tested the efficacy of different strategies to debunk anti-vaccine conspiracy theories through two experiments with 267 and 180 online survey participants, respectively, who were U.S. residents recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk. In the first experiment, “Participants were asked to read one of five combinations of arguments [relating to vaccines]: (a) conspiracy arguments only, (b) anti-conspiracy arguments only, (c) arguments refuting anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, followed by arguments in favor (anti-conspiracy/conspiracy), (d) arguments in favor of conspiracy theories, followed by arguments refuting them (conspiracy/ anti-conspiracy), or (e) a control condition where participants were presented with no information.”

Does Correcting Myths about the Flu Vaccine Work? An Experimental Evaluation of the Effects of Corrective Information
Nyhan, Brendan; Reifler, Jason. Vaccine, January 2015.

Correcting misinformation about the flu vaccine dispels associated myths, but it doesn’t persuade people concerned about its safety to inoculate themselves, this study finds. The researchers looked at nationally representative online survey data collected from an initial sample of 1,000 U.S. adults that examined attitudes toward the flu vaccine. Before answering questions about the vaccine and intent to vaccinate, participants received information that did one of the following: corrected the myth that people can get the flu from the vaccine, offered pro-vaccination information that described the risks associated with the flu, or provided no information about the flu or associated vaccine…

The Limitations of the Backfire Effect
Haglin, Kathryn. Research & Politics, July 2017.

This study attempts to replicate the findings of Nyhan and Reifler’s study summarized above. Using the same methods and procedures, the researcher surveyed 474 adults with Internet Protocol addresses in Texas through Amazon Mechanical Turk. The researcher notes that her sample differs from the original sample in that it is not nationally representative.


This entry was posted on Saturday, June 15th, 2019 at 8:31 am and is filed under Blog.

Videos Video archive

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission joined forces to tackle the issue at the first global vaccination summit. Although many of them live in developing countries with poor access to vaccines, scientists are worried that anti-vaccination campaigners in the developed world are spreading misinformation on social media. So what’s the cure for their scepticism?

Emilie Karafillakis, research fellow for the Vaccine Confidence Project, speaks to France 24 about the rising anti-vaccination sentiment that is rising throughout Europe, especially in France where a recent study revealed 1 in 3 citizens believe vaccines are unsafe.

In this episode of Take as Directed, J. Stephen Morrison speaks with Dr. Heidi Larson on why vaccine confidence is currently in crisis, and how this has fueled outbreaks such as measles and the persistence of polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Literature Literature archive

L. Tavoschi, F. Quattrone, E. De Vita, P.L. Lopalco 2019 Vaccine Volume 37(49): 7201-7288
Biswal . 2019 NEJM DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1903869
Piot P, Larson HJ, O'Brian KL, et al 2019 NATURE Vol. 575, pages119–129.
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