Addressing COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media Preemptively and Responsively

Emily K. Vraga; Leticia Bode

Disclosures

Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2021;27(2):396-403. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Efforts to address misinformation on social media have special urgency with the emergence of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). In one effort, the World Health Organization (WHO) designed and publicized shareable infographics to debunk coronavirus myths. We used an experiment to test the efficacy of these infographics, depending on placement and source. We found that exposure to a corrective graphic on social media reduced misperceptions about the science of 1 false COVID-19 prevention strategy but did not affect misperceptions about prevention of COVID-19. Lowered misperceptions about the science persisted ≥1 week later. These effects were consistent when the graphic was shared by the World Health Organization or by an anonymous Facebook user and when the graphics were shared preemptively or in response to misinformation. Health organizations can and should create and promote shareable graphics to improve public knowledge.

Introduction

The uncertainty around the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, a novel coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease (COVID-19), has led to the rapid and widespread diffusion of misinformation about the virus, its origins, and effective prevention and treatment strategies.[1,2] Misinformation is not a new problem, but it poses particular challenges for infectious disease management when public acceptance is required for prevention behaviors such as social distancing or wearing a mask.

As part of the effort to promote good information over misinformation, the World Health Organization (WHO) has created and publicized shareable infographics ("mythbusters") that debunk specific myths about COVID-19.[3] Research regarding the efficacy of health organization websites designed to debunk misinformation has yielded mixed results. Material from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding the influenza vaccine successfully reduced misperceptions that the vaccine can cause influenza or is unsafe but also reduced intentions to get the vaccine among those concerned about its side effects.[4] Likewise, WHO material debunking Zika virus rumors did not affect most targeted misperceptions and also reduced the accuracy of related beliefs about Zika virus.[5] These examples reinforce concern that repeating false information, even to correct it, can strengthen belief in the myths.[6,7]

In this study, we considered the effectiveness of sharing WHO's myth correction graphics on social media specifically. This project differed from previous research in 2 ways. First, the graphic used in every correction was clearly labeled as coming from WHO, which may boost effectiveness compared with research that did not prominently display the source of the corrective material.[4,5] Second, we considered exposure to someone sharing a specific correction graphic on social media, rather than to website material more generally. Previous research has found that observational correction, which occurs when persons see misinformation being corrected on social media and update their own attitudes in response, is effective for emerging infectious disease topics such as Zika virus[8,9] and for infectious diseases such as influenza.[10] We aimed to determine the effectiveness of social media sharing of a graphic that debunks 2 related coronavirus myths.

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