In the interconnected world in which we live, information — both accurate and inaccurate — spreads quickly and widely across a variety of platforms. The spread of inaccurate information online, particularly through social media, has serious implications for global health, as can be seen in the proliferation and impact of anti-vaccination movements.
The problems and impact of the spread of misinformation about public health. The spread of online skepticism around ‘official’ healthcare methods, such as the 2017 Whatsapp and Facebook anti-vaccination campaigns in South India, or similar anti-vaccination messages that have been circulated on Whatsapp in Brazil in 2018 — have contributed to falling vaccination rates, sometimes coinciding with outbreaks of disease, when they are most needed.
Issues with existing methods of disseminating useful healthcare information. While methods such as formal educational campaigns are important in correcting viral misinformation, they ‘often fall short because they draft messages based on what they want to promote, without addressing existing perceptions’. The ineffectiveness of certain ways of disseminating valid healthcare information — or perhaps a lack of emphasis placed on the importance of increasing exposure to useful information — should also be considered when looking at the spread of online misinformation about healthcare. A record number of 80,000 people in the US between died from flu in the 2017-2018 period; 80% of the 180 children who died were unvaccinated. In the aftermath, several US public health officials stated that ‘they had done a poor job of explaining that the vaccine can prevent complications and deaths.’ Reference?
Potential solutions. Collaboration between medical experts and technology companies to develop effective methods of targeting low-quality health content and promoting accurate medical knowledge online, employing the sway of social media influencers to promote messages, and facilitating open discourse between experts and the public — particularly those sceptic of medical expertise — could be potential ways to address the problem of viral misinformation.
Joyce Chang is a third-year history student at King’s College London. Her research interests include widening access to mental healthcare, impact of tech on healthcare industries.