The Infodemic on Social Media

Stephanie Suzadail
Stephanie Suzadail

The spread of health care misinformation and disinformation is rampant on social media, giving way to a potentially deadly infodemic.

“A majority of adult [health care] users are consulting social media for all of their health information,” said Stephanie Suzadail, a flight nurse from central Pennsylvania. “So, whether they’re looking at YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, they’re going to the internet to look for these answers,”

Suzadail will explore this phenomenon at 1 p.m. Central time tomorrow in The Incident and Influence of Misinformation on Social Media During Pandemics as part of Emergency Nursing 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of the pitfalls of far-reaching social networks, Suzadail said, citing a study early in the pandemic that found a quarter of the tweets related to COVID-19 included inaccuracies.

“Misinformation is almost as deadly as a virus itself because it doesn’t let us get a handle on it,” Suzadail said. “It’s taking us too long to get a handle on things, all because people want to believe a specific message and are going to fight us tooth and nail on it.”

Misinformation is simply false information, while disinformation is knowingly spreading misinformation. Oftentimes, the people sharing disinformation are trying to circumvent or undermine an institution, such as a government or health care agency, Suzadail said.

There is no single format to look for to identify misinformation or disinformation. Suzadail will explain how to decipher the differences among errors, imposter content, satire, manipulated content and other common forms of false information.

“All of these are things that we have seen in our everyday life, whether it be from social media or our news networks,” Suzadail said.

YouTube and Facebook are the most highly consulted social media platforms and the second and third most visited websites, respectively. Instagram and Twitter also are in the top 10 most visited sites.

Another study published in 2020 found false information was significantly more likely to be retweeted than the truth.

“Unfortunately, fake news is sexy,” Suzadail said. “Nobody wants to hear, ‘Wash your hands.’ Nobody wants to hear, ‘There’s no cure.’ Nobody wants to hear, ‘Get your vaccines.’ They want to hear things like ‘Take a goat de-wormer’ or ‘Take this med, take this med’ and ‘It’s the cure.’ Those are the sexy topics. They’re more likely to be retweeted than the truth.”

Other infectious disease outbreaks in the modern era, including SARS and MERS pandemics, have produced similar streams of disinformation.

“We see this again and again. People continue to flock to Google, Twitter, YouTube in all of the major pandemics, and it’s getting more and more prevalent with every single pandemic,” Suzadail said.

The first-hand knowledge emergency nurses earned on the front lines of pandemics put them in a prime position to educate others and combat misinformation online, but many are reluctant to become “keyboard warriors,” Suzadail said. During the session, she will offer suggestions for taking an active role in correcting misinformation.

EN21 session recordings will be available for on-demand viewing on the virtual meeting platform through Jan. 31.