Assessing the risks of social media misinformation to your project
By Michelle Riedlinger
I was extremely pleased to see life and behavioural scientists recently calling for emerging communication technologies and the misinformation they can freely spread to be treated as a “crisis discipline”.
An important move for collective action against social media misinformation is to assess how severe the risks are for your own work. Use these questions to help consider the risks:
1. How could social media misinformation affect my communication?
Your answer to this question will depend on: your research discipline/area, the politicised nature of your work, and who will benefit or face losses from the science communication.
For example, social media posts with political or fringe media’s endorsements about ‘miracle cures’ for COVID-19 (such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin) continue to circulate long after scientific research has disproven their effectiveness and governments have banned their use.
2. How much control do I have over misinformation?
This will depend on the kind of misinformation, the size of the community, your relationships with them, where misinformation originates and how it circulates.
Recently, Australian federal Member of Parliament Craig Kelly sent a text message to thousands of Australians with decontextualised screenshots (pages 3–6) from an Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) report listing all adverse events related to medicines (including vaccines) and medical devices used in Australia. Kelly provided a link to download the full report, which was incorrectly labelled as “adverse event and death report”.
Addressing this misinformation has challenges. Political communication in Australia is exempt from the nation’s spam and privacy acts. The TGA issued a legal warning in response.
3. What could I lose because of social media misinformation?
Losses can be tangible or reputational. Will it compromise community health or environmental wellbeing? Could it end important programs for positive community change? Could you lose support from your organisation or funders? What about community trust?
Use social listening to find out who engages with social media misinformation, and think about how you might respond. Coordinated inauthentic online behaviour amplifies threats because of its distributed and embedded nature, and the potential to turn fringe beliefs into mainstream beliefs.
For example, as quickly as Facebook bans COVID-19 misinformation videos or links to URLs from established misinformation networks, new videos with different URLs spring up on alternative platforms.
4. Could my work benefit from social media misinformation?
It might be hard to imagine benefits from social media misinformation. We’re still grappling with how transformational technologies—algorithms and one-click advertising—have changed the way we make decisions that affect our own health and community wellbeing.
But we have opportunities to:
- better understand how and why misinformation is shared
- rearticulate our values and how science communication can contribute to effective decision-making
- allow research users, patient groups and industry partners to step up in support of decision-making based on evidence.
Tackling misinformation also encourages us to take more collaborative and transdisciplinary approaches to science communication. We can all contribute to that.
Photo by DeymosHR on Shutterstock