Unregulated social media poses a threat to public health

Guest post by Dr Daniel Allington


We know that health-related misinformation and conspiracy theories are very popular on social media. [1-7]


We know that social media platforms make a lot of money out of such content, [8] and we know that they take action to limit its influence only inconsistently and after delays. [9, 10] We also know that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with reduced engagement in health-protective behaviours, from safer sex [11, 12] and vaccination [13, 14] to hand-washing and lockdown compliance. [15, 16]


Now new research, carried out by myself and colleagues at King’s College London, shows that relying on social media for information about COVID-19 is in itself associated with failure to follow public health guidance intended to limit the spread of COVID-19. [17]


The research is reported in an article published in the peer-reviewed journal, Psychological Medicine. We found that people who rely more heavily on social media for information about COVID-19 are more likely to believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and that people who believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories are less likely to be washing their hands more often and socially distancing.


Beyond that, we also found that people who rely more heavily on social media for information about COVID-19 are less likely to be washing their hands more often and socially distancing, while people who rely more heavily on television and radio for information are more likely to be doing so. Relying on friends and family had a slight negative effect; relying on newspapers and magazines made no difference either way.


Let that sink in. Getting health information from social media is bad for you.


In the UK, the broadcast media are subject to statutory regulation by Ofcom, while the major newspapers are subject to voluntary regulation by IPSO and other independent bodies. Even in countries where this is not the case, civil liability acts to restrain legacy media organisations from disseminating outright falsehoods. When David Icke and Brian Rose spread potentially harmful COVID-19 misinformation on YouTube, they faced no consequences. When the same content was re-broadcast on the London Live television channel, Ofcom stepped in. [18] It took a high profile public campaign from CCDH to get Icke’s YouTube channel deleted, [19] but Rose’s remains in place.


Social media companies cannot be trusted to self-regulate, and it serves no useful purpose to insulate them from civil liability by continuing to treat them as communications networks rather than as the publishing companies that they objectively are. [20]


Free speech is not a licence to profit from lies.


References

  1. Wang, Y., et al., Systematic literature review on the spread of health-related misinformation on social media. Social Science & Medicine, 2019. 240: p. 112552.

  2. Oi-Yee Li, H., et al., YouTube as a source of information on COVID-19: a pandemic of misinformation? BMJ Global Health, 2020. 5: p. e002604.

  3. Pandey, A., et al., YouTube as a source of information on the H1N1 influenza pandemic. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2010. 38(3): p. e1-3.

  4. Pathak, R., et al., YouTube as a source of information on Ebola virus disease. North American Journal of Medical Sciences, 2015. 7(7): p. 306-309.

  5. Buchanan, R. and R.D. Beckett, Assessment of vaccination-related information for consumers available on Facebook. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 2014. 31(3): p. 227-234.

  6. Orr, D., A. Baram-Tsabari, and K. Landsman, Social media as a platform for health-related public debates and discussions: the polio vaccine on Facebook. Israel Journal of Health Policy Research, 2016. 5(34): p. 1-11.

  7. Sharma, M., et al., Zika virus pandemic - analysis of Facebook as a social media health information platform. American Journal of Infection Control, 2017. 45(3): p. 301-302.

  8. CCDH, #DeplatformIcke: How Big Tech powers and profits from David Icke’s lies and hate, and why it must stop. 2020, Center for Countering Digital Hate: London. p. 25.

  9. AVAAZ, How Facebook can flatten the curve of the coronavirus infodemic: study indicates Facebook is rife with bogus cures and conspiracy theories that remain on the platform long enough to put millions of people at risk. 2020, AVAAZ: London.

  10. CCDH, #WilltoAct: how social media giants have failed to live up to their claims on the Coronavirus ‘infodemic’. 2020, London: Center for Countering Digital Hate.

  11. Thorburn, S. and L.M. Bogart, Conspiracy beliefs about birth control: barriers to pregnancy prevention among African Americans of reproductive age. Health Education & Behavior, 2005. 32: p. 474-487.

  12. Grebe, E. and N. Nattrass, AIDS conspiracy beliefs and unsafe sex in Cape Town. AIDS and Behavior, 2011. 16(3): p. 761-773.

  13. Jolley, D. and K.M. Douglas, The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions. PLoS ONE, 2014. 9(2): p. 1-9.

  14. Dunn, A.G., et al., Mapping information exposure on social media to explain differences in HPV vaccine coverage in the United States. Vaccine, 2017. 35: p. 3033-3040.

  15. Allington, D. and Dhavan, N., The relationship between conspiracy beliefs and compliance with public health guidance with regard to COVID-19. Working paper published by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, 9 April 2020.

  16. Freeman, D., et al., Coronavirus conspiracy beliefs, mistrust, and compliance with government guidelines in England. Psychological Medicine, 2020. Published online first, 19 May 2020.

  17. Allington, D., et al., Health-protective behaviour, social media usage and conspiracy belief during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Psychological Medicine, 2020. Published online first, 8 June 2020.

  18. Ofcom, London Real: Covid-19. 2020. Ofcom Broadcast and On Demand Bulletin.

  19. PA Media, YouTube deletes conspiracy theorist David Icke's channel. The Guardian, 2 May 2020.

  20. Allington, D., Antisemitism in the Urban Dictionary and the responsibilities of online publishers. Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism, 2020. 3(1): p. 1-10.

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