With social media serving as a news source to so many, researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Tulane University School of Medicine studied how Facebook users are talking about the Zika virus.
While for most Americans Zika has only become a household term over the course of the last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that the virus was first identified in humans in Uganda in 1952. Infection with the Zika virus is typically associated with mild illness and symptoms such as fever and rash. The current Zika pandemic in the Western Hemisphere took a dramatic turn when in 2015, Brazil saw an outbreak of the virus along with a steep rise in the rate of babies born with congenital microcephaly. In newborn infants, the condition is marked by severe brain development defects, resulting in smaller heads and brains along with symptoms in infants such as seizures, developmental delay, intellectual disability, motor impairment, as well as hearing and vision loss. In some cases, infants born with microcephaly do not survive. Following the identification of a Zika outbreak in Brazil, other countries in South America and Central America began reporting locally-acquired cases of the virus, and health officials in Brazil found a link between Zika and microcephaly in infant blood and tissue samples.
In the United States, while Zika has not spread the way it has in South America and Central America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed cases in more than 4,000 Americans. The majority of the cases are travel-related, with only 171 cases acquired in the United States, all in southern Florida. As Americans continue to worry about the spread of Zika, a new study by researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Tulane University School of Medicine published in the American Journal of Infection Control, looked at Facebook posts and videos to analyze how the social media site was used as a news and information source on Zika. For their research, the authors identified the top 200 Zika-related posts, and had two independent physician reviewers evaluate them. The reviewers checked the posts for quality of the scientific information, emphasis on prevention, citation of credible sources, and then categorized them as containing either relevant information or misleading information.
In the study, Facebook posts citing false science or casting the pandemic as a hoax or a conspiracy were labeled as misinformation. Study author Megha Sharma, MD, FAAP, explains that in cases of a sudden pandemic, panic can ensue and individuals may feed into conspiracy theories and inaccuracies about a disease. “The scientific knowledge about flaviviridae pandemics specifically Zika is limited,” says Dr. Sharma. “This knowledge gap tends to propagate conspiracy theories, which ultimately fuel the spread of the virus as patients believing these conspiracies tend not practice preventive measures.”
After reviewing the posts, the study team identified 81% as containing useful information and 12% as misleading. Due to a discrepancy in classification, 17 posts were eliminated from the study. The team looked at the most popular post in each category to compare their relative visibility and influence, and found that the top relevant post from WHO had 43,000 views and 964 shares, while the top misleading post had more than 530,000 views and 19,600 shares. The top misleading post theorized that the connection between Zika and microcephaly was a conspiracy by chemical companies to cover up a link to larvicidal chemicals.
“These unfounded rumor mongering and conspiracy theory posts were more popular than the posts disseminating accurate information,” the authors write in their paper. “This kind of misinformation can be harmful because it builds on existing narratives, blocking measures that deal with the pandemic. For example, similar pseudoscientific misinformation led to a ban on pesticides in Brazil that was counterintuitive to stopping the spread of Zika virus.”
The authors conclude that Facebook and other social media sites need better curation of public health information in the face of the Zika pandemic, although having a set of criteria or censorship would likely only fuel conspiracy theorists. A dedicated Facebook staff reporting misinformation or deleting pseudoscientific claims could never eliminate the problem, says Dr. Sharma. “Conspiracy theorists will always be there and as long as they don't put public health at risk, they are harmless.”