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Addressing viral medical rumors and false or misleading information

July 18, 2023  |  Posted by ABIM  |  Uncategorized

It’s hard to forget the confusion that swirled around COVID-19 and vaccines at the height of the pandemic. Especially through social media, medical misinformation and dangerous rumors quickly spread through communities where individuals were frightened and desperate for answers. Our nation’s public health system simply wasn’t prepared or equipped to address dueling pandemics: the virus itself, and the tidal wave of misinformation that soon followed.

The results of this continue to be felt, and likely will for some time. Nearly two years after the pandemic, 78% of adults either still believed or are unsure of whether to believe at least 1 of 8 false statements about COVID-19 or the COVID-19 vaccines.

Instead of addressing this issue head on, the judicial system seems to be taking a different turn. Recently, a judge in Louisiana ruled that federal departments and agencies cannot contact social media companies regarding “the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech posted on social media platforms.”

A new paper published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine titled Countering Misleading Medical Information in a Networked Information Environment examines how two grassroots organizations, ThisIsOurShot and VacunateYa, empowered and supported medical professionals – physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and medical trainees – to share accurate health information on social media in an attempt to reverse the trend of misinformation.

They did this through multifaceted education programs using the latest messaging research and behavioral science to teach medical professionals and community members how to have more effective COVID-19 vaccine conversations. They also provided guidance on how to respond to misleading information both in person and on social media, hosted virtual training sessions with a peer medical professional and a social media communications expert and distributed toolkits with short videos to share new skills. Each training focused on a specific topic—for example, how to respond to rumors and false information about the vaccine and infertility.

These efforts were based on volunteer effort and hard to sustain; they also weren’t resourced to measure impact. But they mapped a prototype for what it might look like to respond to circulating misinformation in real time with effectively designed messaging. The paper’s authors suggest that to effectively combat dangerous medical rumors and disinformation in the future, a durably funded infrastructure that allows for media monitoring, rapid assessment of the threat that circulating harmful information may have on public health and organizes effective coordinated responses should be created. Read the full paper, which is co-authored by ABIM President and CEO Richard J. Baron on the Annals website.