Newswise — The volume of anti-vaccine posts that are surfaced by a quick Twitter search can make countering health misinformation seem like an impossible task. However, new research published this month in APHA’s American Journal of Public Health finds a relatively small group of influential, coordinated Twitter accounts can drive a majority of vaccine opposition and misinformation.
The study is part of a special AJPH supplement sponsored by the National Cancer Institute dedicated to “Health Misinformation on Social Media”, which includes a collection of 20 new studies and commentaries, all focused on understanding how and why misinformation spreads and how it can be effectively countered with evidence-based information. Work on the special issue began before the pandemic, but its findings are more relevant than ever as public health workers face an ongoing avalanche of COVID-19 misinformation and prepare to educate their communities on an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.
“The onslaught of misinformation about COVID-19 grabbed news headlines and became a key theme in both public and private discourse during the pandemic, engendering a wider recognition of the urgent need to better understand, and more effectively respond to, health misinformation, including myths and misinformation about cancer,” said the supplement’s Guest Editor Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, PhD, MPH. “The contributions in this special issue are therefore especially timely.”
For example, the Twitter vaccine study found that while there is a lot of vaccine misinformation on the platform, anti-vaccine conversations seem to be driven by a relatively small number of accounts. To conduct the study, researchers used machine learning to find anti-vaccine Twitter posts and identify the top authors over a period of six months in 2019. They found that just 129 Twitter authors seemed to be driving nearly 60% of all conversation on vaccine opposition. Top opposition authors also appeared to be highly coordinated.
Researchers said the results show that major sources of vaccine misinformation on social media platforms can be found and quantified.
“Individuals and organizations opposed to routine immunization, vaccines, public health policies and government-backed science are readily identifiable,” said study co-author Joe Smyser, PhD, CEO of the Public Good Projects. “They reach millions of people with misinformation and disinformation. What we do about this as a society remains an open question, but we can’t claim that we don’t know the who, what, when, where and why of this opposition movement.”
Other studies and analyses in the special issue include research on breast cancer misinformation on Pinterest, the framing of vaccine refusal as a civil right on Facebook, and how GoFundMe can spread misinformation about cancer treatments. Editorials in the special issue explore strategies for countering health misinformation and highlight the need for more research on how it spreads, why it works and how to crowd it out.
“It is time to boldly explore innovative, adaptive and alternative approaches to both disseminating evidence-based information and mitigating the impact of misinformation,” writes Chou in an editorial. “With COVID-19 continuing to cause global suffering and disruptions, understanding and combatting health misinformation is one of the most urgent public health priorities of our time.”
The special AJPH supplement, “Health Misinformation on Social Media,” is available online. To request a full copy of a study or for information on scheduling interviews, contact APHA Media Relations.
The issue was funded in whole or in part with federal funds from the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Bethesda, MD, under Contract No. HHSN261201700004I. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own, and this material should not be interpreted as representing the official viewpoint of the US Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, or the National Cancer Institute.
The American Journal of Public Health is the monthly journal of the American Public Health Association. APHA champions the health of all people and all communities. We are the only organization that combines a nearly 150-year perspective, a broad-based member community and the ability to influence policy to improve the public’s health. Learn more at www.apha.org.