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Dec. 5, 2022

Ask the expert: Why is COVID-19 misinformation on social media a public health concern?

Twitter’s decision to no longer enforce its COVID-19 misinformation policy, quietly posted on the site’s rules page and effective as of Nov. 23, 2022, has researchers and experts in public health seriously concerned about the possible repercussions.

Anjana Susarla, Omura-Saxena Professor in Responsible AI in the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, shares why reducing content moderation is a significant step in the wrong direction, especially in light of the uphill battle social media platforms face in combating medical misinformation and disinformation.

A woman poses in a hallway with her arms crossed.
Developing and enforcing effective content moderation policies takes planning and resources, says Anjana Susarla, Omura-Saxena Professor in Responsible AI in the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University.

What makes misinformation on social media so harmful?

First, social media enables misinformation to spread at a much greater scale, speed and scope.

Second, content that is sensational and likely to trigger emotions is more likely to go viral on social media, making falsehoods easier to spread than the truth.

Third, digital platforms such as Twitter play a gatekeeping role the way they aggregate, curate and amplify content. This means that misinformation on emotionally triggering topics such as vaccines can readily gain attention.

How has COVID-19 misinformation on social media directly affected public perception and health?

The spread of misinformation during the pandemic has been dubbed an infodemic by the World Health Organization. There is considerable evidence that COVID-19-related misinformation on social media reduces vaccine uptake. Public health experts have cautioned that misinformation on social media seriously hampers progress toward herd immunity, weakening society’s ability to deal with new COVID-19 variants.

Misinformation on social media fuels public doubts about vaccine safety. Studies show that COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is driven by a misunderstanding of herd immunity and beliefs in conspiracy theories. 

What role does content moderation play in combating misinformation?

Social media platforms’ content moderation policies and stances toward misinformation are crucial for combating misinformation. In the absence of strong content moderation policies on Twitter, algorithmic content curation and recommendation are likely to boost the spread of misinformation by increasing echo chamber effects, for example, exacerbating partisan differences in exposure to content. Algorithmic bias in recommendation systems could also further accentuate global health care disparities and racial disparities in vaccine uptake.

What dangers do less-regulated platforms pose?

There is evidence that some less-regulated platforms, such as Gab, may amplify the impact of unreliable sources and increase COVID-19 misinformation. There is also evidence that the misinformation ecosystem can lure people who are on social media platforms that invest in content moderation to accept misinformation that originates on less moderated platforms.

The danger then is that not only will there be greater anti-vaccine discourse on Twitter, but that such toxic speech can spill over into other online platforms that may be investing in combating medical misinformation.

What does an effective medical content moderation policy look like?

In 2021, a U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory identified that social media platforms’ content moderation policies need to:

  • pay attention to the design of recommendation algorithms.
  • prioritize early detection of misinformation.
  • amplify information from credible sources of online health information.

These priorities require partnerships between health care organizations and social media platforms to develop best practice guidelines to address health care misinformation. Developing and enforcing effective content moderation policies takes planning and resources.

Answers are excerpts from an article originally published in The Conversation.

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