Health misinformation is a pandemic, and social media is desperately trying to navigate it

Easy access to information and the Internet has created a significant impact in society. From increasing overall cultural and news literacy to empowering people to stay connected, the fast-paced information age has certainly changed the way society communicates. However, with it came certain challenges – and the spread of misinformation is central to those challenges.

The fear of misinformation was especially prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic, when there was a global state of mass confusion and lack of understanding about what the virus is, who can be affected, how to prevent infection, death, etc. -medical professionals shared their opinions about the virus, which challenged the opinions of trained medical professionals, causing not only chaos but also a sense of distrust in the general community.

This is an ephemeral challenge on social media and public information platforms; companies and moderators struggle with the ever-tough balance between over-moderating and restricting free speech versus promoting a platform that spreads misinformation.

Late last week, YouTube, one of the world’s largest online video sharing and media platforms, launched a new initiative on that front. Dr. Garth Graham, Global Head of YouTube Health, wrote in a blog post titled “New Ways for Licensed Healthcare Professionals to Reach People on YouTube” and explained, “When it comes to our health, people trust healthcare professionals , to give us the best advice. But the opportunity that healthcare professionals have to inform and educate their patients largely stops at the door of the clinic. The reality is that the majority of healthcare decisions are made outside the doctor’s office, in the daily lives of our patients […] Today, we’re announcing that for the first time, certain categories of health professionals and health information providers can apply to make their channels eligible for our health product features, which launched in the US last year. This includes health source information panels that help viewers identify videos from credible sources and health content shelves that highlight videos from those sources when searching for health topics so people can more easily navigate and evaluate health information online.”

Essentially, YouTube is trying to provide a higher quality of health information through its platforms, with the hope that this helps the wider YouTube community find more legitimate content and links they can trust.

YouTube is certainly not the only platform going through significant growing pains on this front. Facebook (now known as “Meta”) has for many years been given considerable control over how content is moderated on its platforms, from the actual Facebook app to Instagram. The company’s CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly come under scrutiny on this topic, especially considering that the platforms reach nearly 2 billion people a month.

More recently, the dramatic purchase of Twitter Inc. by Tesla founder Elon Musk has attracted considerable media attention. One of Musk’s self-proclaimed interests in buying the company is said to be based on his dissatisfaction with the way Twitter moderates content and controls the flow of information. In a post last week, Musk shared an open Note addressed to “Twitter Advertisers”: “The reason I acquired Twitter is that it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square where a wide range of beliefs can be discussed in a healthy way without resorting to violence. Right now there is a great danger that social media will split into far-right and far-left echo chambers that generate more hatred and divide our society.

Musk has consistently announced the formation of a “content moderation council” that will review content and account recovery decisions to ensure better alignment with Twitter’s mission and guidelines.

Indeed, this is also important in terms of health misinformation, as Twitter is a conduit for vast amounts of health data and news. During the height of the pandemic, doctors and providers of all backgrounds took to Twitter (the most common hashtags included #MedTwitter, #MedEd—“medical education,” or #FOAMed—“Free and Open Access Medical Education”) to show the scenes of on the front lines, often sharing their own experiences and advice on how to deal with the virus and other illnesses. Of course, this soon led to the ephemeral problem: who is to be trusted? Notably, Twitter boasts nearly 450 million monthly active users.

None of this content management work will be easy. The reason this problem even exists is because of the constant challenge between the right to free speech, the dissemination of accurate information, and public safety concerns. Finding the right balance between these factors is proving to be somewhat of a challenge for these companies. Really, the best thing consumers can do for themselves is to ultimately consult their own trusted licensed and trained medical professionals for any concerns. Regardless, the question of how best to communicate information is one of the most important thought issues for leaders to consider, as the future of our world truly depends on it.

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