Three emergency medicine experts from the University of Pennsylvania say that public health organizations should consider using online platforms to get accurate information out to the public.

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As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the dissemination of accurate health information has never been more important.

It has also never been more challenging, with people increasingly getting their information from social media platforms on which accuracy is by no means assured.

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On January 4, 2021, the JAMA Network published a viewpoint essay by three University of Pennsylvania emergency medicine experts — Raina M. Merchant, Eugenia C. South, and Nicole Lurie — that describes the challenge and proposes some solutions.

The authors assert that medical misinformation itself constitutes a distinct public health crisis.

It has always been the case, state the authors, that delivery of medical information to the public has utilized the most popular media of its time.

In the last decade, we have increasingly been receiving information online. This trend has only accelerated during lockdowns, when people are less likely to spend time with others and share and assess information with them.

Merchant, South, and Lurie write that misinformation has likely accelerated the spread of COVID-19.

“Misinformation has emerged about nearly every aspect of the pandemic, including the origins of the virus (e.g., it was manufactured in a laboratory), treatments (e.g., bleach, alcohol), and vaccine safety (e.g., vaccines include embedded microchips).”

Misinformation is “massive in volume, contagious, and can appear to come from trusted social networks,” the authors write.

In their essay, they also note that the politicization and frequent characterization of accurate medical information as “fake news” makes identifying credible information even more difficult.

The deliberate distribution of misinformation by foreign government entities is, they write, for the purpose of sowing confusion and promoting chaos.

Some organizations have taken measures to combat misinformation. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, have partnered with social platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, to flag questionable content.

Still, the authors say, “there is an immediate need to evaluate the effectiveness of these and other countermeasures against misinformation.”

Merchant, South, and Lurie point out that social media platforms already know a great deal about their users and that this information can be helpful.

As an example, they cite a study of 580 million tweets that showed how simple it could be to track the movement of Twitter users. Such knowledge could help public health organizations distribute hyperlocal health-related information, such as shelter-in-place mandates and local pandemic statistics.

Social media platforms also offer a unique and almost instantaneous means of gathering public sentiment that can help shape effective messaging.

The authors suggest that people affiliated with trusted organizations provide an effective conduit for disseminating information to those who trust them.

With an inherently strong understanding of their communities, these people are especially qualified to shape messages that will resonate.

Incorporating a group’s existing concerns allows these leaders to develop compelling narratives and information packages tailor-made for their audience.

The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Black, Latinx, and Native American communities especially hard indicates the underlying inequities in access to accurate health information and to healthcare itself.

Merchant, South, and Lurie write that “social media is an important tool that public health organizations can use to address racism and equity with the same focus as the messages being deployed about COVID-19.”

Currently, inequities exist in how people get, assess, and share health and other information. The authors cite the conclusion of a previous study from the H1N1 pandemic that “exposure to information and differences in modes of delivery” can affect an outbreak’s impact.

The authors advocate strengthening access to broadband and WiFi connectivity to level the playing field for everyone in the United States.

As an example, they cite the way in which a lack of equal access has made the shift to remote learning that the pandemic has necessitated even more burdensome for many students, constraining their ability to receive the quality of education that is available to others.

Merchant, South, and Lurie recognize that there is an element of risk in turning to social media as an outlet for health information, acknowledging that things do go wrong on the internet and that arguments and conflicts do happen.

Nonetheless, they assert that “not expanding traditional approaches and engaging with the full complement of available digital strategies represents a missed opportunity.”

Embracing social media in this way is ultimately a matter of “meeting people where they are.” The online conversation will go on regardless of whether health organizations take part. Merchant, South, and Lurie say that it is urgent that they do.

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