Public healthcare at risk due to misinformation on Twitter

Public healthcare at risk due to misinformation on Twitter

Photo Credits: PEXELS / PIXABAY.

Researchers work to understand connection between low flu vaccine uptake, spread of misinformation online

Social media has become a persistent and crucial part of society. With many people relying on social media as their source of news, entertainment and means of communication, the influence of these apps on our minds has never been more prevalent. UC Davis researchers are studying these interactions to better understand the many ways social media is influencing  our decisions and desires. 

The CHATR Lab, led by Jingwen Zhang, assistant professor in the department of communication, studies the role of technology and social media in health care communication.

“Health communication is how to communicate health care effectively to the public,” Zhang said. “We look at how social media is used and how it can be improved to promote public health information.” 

A recent study conducted in the CHATR Lab sought to understand the ways misinformation about the flu vaccine is spread on social media and the communities spreading the misinformation. The 2017–18 flu season saw the greatest number of flu cases since 2009 and an extremely low flu vaccination rate. When Jieyu Ding Featherstone and Qiusi Sun — both graduate students in the CHATR Lab — noticed this, they wanted to better understand the factors that led to low vaccine uptake by the public and, ultimately, to the flu outbreak. 

Concerned about the rising spread of flu vaccine misinformation on social media, Featherstone and Sun created an algorithm to classify relevant tweets they gathered from Twitter. Classification of these tweets as misinformation or “non-misinformation” was based on established scientific consensus.

“In vaccines specifically, we define [misinformation] as information that is already falsified by either the scientific community or the general consensus and we would treat that as the baseline,” Featherstone said. 

Using this algorithm to distinguish between true and false information, the study analyzed a sample of 120,379 original tweets, classifying 7,814 (8.6%) as misinformation and 82,576 (91.4%) as “non-misinformation.” The central words in the misinformation tweets were “flu,” “vaccine,” “not,” “get” and “death.” Key words in the “non-misinformation” tweets were “flu,” “vaccine,” “not,” “get” and “health.” 

Despite a relatively low percentage of the overall tweets being classified as misinformation, these tweets can still have a high level of influence. Since the study only analyzed original tweets, it did not take into account that those tweets could have been retweeted and shared which would result in them reaching a much broader group of people. 

“Even if it is a low number, once the tweet gets spread around it can get a bigger spread and influence,” Sun said.  

Beyond classifying the tweets, they hope to analyze the data further to find the sources of the misinformation. By understanding the source, the research team hopes that the process of correcting it will become easier. 

“My main goal is to see who are the people sending information, that is the first step to get deeper into the issue,” Featherstone said. “To better understand the community will help us be able to correct them.” 

By conducting these deeper studies, Featherstone and Sun hope to be able to combat the misinformation that is ultimately a public health risk. When misinformation about healthcare  spreads and people begin to believe it, the consequences can be immense, making this type of research invaluable for the healthcare industry. Beyond the flu vaccine misinformation study, the CHATR Lab hopes to discover ways in which social media can be an asset to the healthcare industry.

“The next question we want to explore is the ways that social media can be used to promote health information so health professionals can utilize and spread accurate health information,” Zhang said. 

By creating a stronger social media presence, healthcare organizations have the capacity to address the misinformation issue and present more fact-based social media content. These changes will not occur overnight, but Zhang believes that individuals must become more aware of these issues to protect themselves from misinformation.

“We really need to educate individual consumers to be vigilant and don’t just buy into it, always just double check,” Zhang said. 

Written by: Alma Meckler-Pacheco — science@theaggie.org