Access to accurate, up-to-date health information has been critical to keeping individuals and communities safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. As research around the virus evolved rapidly, social media became one site where health misinformation was widely disseminated—both intentionally and unintentionally (1). In response, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has named Health Misinformation as one of his office’s top priorities (4). In an advisory titled “Confronting Health Misinformation,” Murthy stated that “Misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatments” (4). Within this landscape of widespread health misinformation on social media, it is critical that individuals, health professionals, companies, and governments take action and respond to this public health crisis.
Health misinformation has been defined by researchers as health-related claims that are false or misleading according to current scientific consensus (3). Indeed, the spread of these false claims through social media is nothing new. A literature review from 2021 found that health misinformation was most common on topics of smoking and drugs, with the prevalence of health misinformation reaching 87% of posts in one category – Twitter posts about drugs – according to one study (5). Misinformation about vaccines had the second highest prevalence, reaching 43%, followed by diseases and pandemics at 40% and pro-eating disorder arguments at 36% (5). Amongst the platforms surveyed, Twitter had the highest rate of health misinformation (5). Some of these claims originated from non-medical professionals who are actively seeking to spread misinformation. However, many are simply the result of civilians reacting with confusion and fear.
In order to remedy the surplus of health misinformation that circulates on social media, additional research and new initiatives are necessary at both local and large-scale levels. For instance, more extensive research needs to be conducted on understudied platforms such as Reddit or WeChat and non-textual content such as videos, images, and memes (3). Cross-disciplinary research is also necessary to understand psychological factors involved, considering that health topics can be intermingled with complex emotions (3). Finally, effective responses to health misinformation need to be developed. Simply refuting false claims may be ineffective in many situations (3). Proactive strategies, such as priming users with accurate information and educating individuals about identifying reliable sources, need to be balanced with reactive strategies.
Individuals, healthcare professionals, and technology companies can all play a role in combating health misinformation on social media. Health professionals have the power to proactively engage with their social media audiences and provide factual information to patients and followers (2). In addition, technology platforms are being called to develop more effective strategies for monitoring content (1). Recently, Global Head of YouTube Health, Dr. Garth Graham, announced that the video platform will be incorporating health information panels to highlight authoritative sources and health content shelves that display reliable videos when users search for health-related topics (1). While it remains to be seen whether these strategies will be effective, individuals can take action in their online and in-person communities by vetting the health information they are presented on social media.
- Balsubramanian, Sai. “Health Misinformation Is A Pandemic, and Social Media Is Desperately Trying To Navigate it.” Forbes, 30 Oct 2022, www.forbes.com/sites/saibala/2022/10/30/health-misinformation-is-a-pandemic-and-social-media-is-desperately-trying-to-navigate-it/
- Bautista, John Robert et al. “Healthcare professionals’ acts of correcting health misinformation on social media.” International Journal of Medical Informatics, Vol. 148, April 2021, doi: 10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2021.104375
- Chou, Wen-Ying et al. “Where We Go From Here: Health Misinformation on Social Media.” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 110, No. S3, 2020, pp. S273-AS275, doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2020.305905
- Murthy, Vivek. “Confronting Health Misinformation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Building a Healthy Information Environment.” Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/priorities/health-misinformation/index.html
- Suarez-Lledo, Victor and Javier Alvarez-Galvez. “Prevalence of Health Misinformation on Social Media: Systematic Review.” Journal of Medical Internet Research, Vol 23, No. 1, Jan 20 2021, doi: 10.2196/17187