Digital misinformation poses covert threat to public health

(Credit: Dylan/Flickr)

The Internet has made it easy to access to a vast array of information on health and medicine, but it can be difficult to determine what is true and what is not. Misinformation on health permeates sites and social media channels with some of the highest online traffic, making it dangerous for those who believe what they read.

One of the medical interventions most notorious for public misunderstanding is the vaccine. Medical anthropologist Heidi Larson, who began an initiative called the Vaccine Confidence Project to monitor immunization misinformation and concern, understands the Internet’s power over people’s beliefs about health all too well.

“What the Internet, and particularly social media networks and smartphones have allowed is organizing organizing of groups, movements, social networks that have a lot of these sentiments, to spread misconceptions wide and fast,” Larson said in an interview with Humanosphere.

Larson made it clear that distrust in vaccines is not a new phenomenon born with the creation of the Internet. Misconceptions around immunization have been around since the creation of the first smallpox vaccine more than two centuries ago.

However, as the world grows increasingly connected through rapid and easy access to the internet, groups that oppose vaccines are transcending factors like religion or income, and popping up rapidly in regions all across the globe.

Misinformation is mostly spread in pockets of the web where people access and spread the same, polarized information, or echo chambers, according to a study published in the January issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here, people who share the same views have their ideas reinforced by those in the web community, and become more resistant to information that challenges their shared beliefs.

Using the vaccine example, this allows people to go online and easily find others who share their suspicions that vaccines are dangerous or don’t work. These echo chambers can even be found on social media channels like Pinterest. Although the site is typically used for cupcake recipes and pictures of sleeping kittens, users are now searching for more information on health and wellness. Unfortunately, 75 percent of pins about vaccines voice negative views about immunization, according to a study published in the journal Vaccine in September.

“If you have any inkling of an issue, and you go online, you can be sure you’ll find all the things in the world that will scare you even more,” said Larson. “You can also find things that will make you confident in vaccines, but that’s not what people are looking for.”

The circulation of misinformation becomes truly harmful when it prevents people, or their children, from getting the medical attention they need. The World Economic Forum even lists massive digital misinformation as a main threat to society, positing that a tweet or a blog posting could have just as much impact today as the catastrophic 1938 radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells fiction novel The War of the Worlds, which (may have) sparked widespread hysteria among listeners convinced the U.S. had been invaded by aliens.

But we don’t need to use hypotheticals to understand the threat of digital misinformation in the U.S. it’s already here. Misinformation was the leading cause of the Disneyland measles outbreak in 2015 (the largest U.S. outbreak of the virus in nearly a generation), unnecessary paranoia and rumors surrounding the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the rejection of water flouridation in cities like Portland, Ore., (founded on belief in a single review of studies that was later discredited).

With all the unsupported health information circulating on the web, it has become more important for health professionals and institutions to recognize the public’s increasing use of the Internet to access health information, and combat misinformation by engaging the public on a ground level, outside of polarizing online communities.

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About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com