Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.
While the Covid pandemic brought to a head the risks posed by misinformation, especially on science-related topics, a recent study1 from George Washington University shows how many social media communities were already full of groups that opposed best-science advice long beforehand.
The researchers mapped out conversations on Facebook from December 2019 through the Covid crisis and found that a large number of users became entwined with communities that were largely opposed to the scientific guidance being issued during the early months of the pandemic. Worryingly, they’re seeing similar trends in the case of monkeypox too.
“This is a real problem that extends far beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” they explain. “If left unaddressed, we risk losing the battle over hearts and minds when it comes to other crises such as monkeypox, abortion misinformation, climate change—and even trust in upcoming elections.”
The analysis shows that during the early months, when public health authorities were still largely trying to understand the virus, social media communities were already pedaling unofficial, and often bad, information among their members.
For instance, they found that various parenting communities were already providing information that went against official guidance as early as January 2020. By February, they were sharing their own guidance. Official attempts to engage were largely fruitless, not least because they often involved officials talking to each other rather than crossing the divide.
The analysis shows that there was a lot of cross-fertilization between communities, with parenting groups, unfortunately, mixing heavily with more conspiracy-type content around everything from vaccines to 5G.
“This was a huge missed opportunity for effective public health messaging and intervention early in the crisis,” the researchers explain. “Maps like the ones we’ve created could help public health experts and social media platforms tailor their best-science COVID-19 guidance around, for example, popular topics within the parenting communities and then introduce that guidance across the Internet globally and at scale.”
The researchers believe that if authorities are to get better at tackling the next crisis, they should resist targeting their efforts at the most extreme groups and instead focus on more mainstream communities.
Article source: Online Communities Undermine Best Scientific Advice.
Header image source: Brett Jordan on Unsplash.
- Illari, L., Restrepo, N. J., & Johnson, N. F. (2022). Losing the battle over best-science guidance early in a crisis: COVID-19 and beyond. Science Advances, 8(39), eabo8017. ↩