Can celebrities influence public health?
When social media influencers talk, people listen. Users with large followings sell products, push crowdfunding campaigns over the finish line, sell tickets to events, or just spread their own personal viewpoints.
While some of those posts may be harmless fun, posts about medical information on social media deserve careful scrutiny, and users — especially people with large followings — have a responsibility to ensure what they’re sharing is accurate.
Rapper Nicki Minaj made headlines last month for tweeting she wouldn’t attend the Met Gala because of its requirement for guests to be vaccinated; she later shared a now-debunked story about an unnamed cousin’s friend in Trinidad who was dumped just before his wedding after his testicles became swollen as a result of getting vaccinated. Despite its lack of truth, her fans have backed Minaj for the posts.
“What the fiasco has made clear is the troubling intersection of entertainment and political tribalism, highlighting a culture where cults of personality reign and critical thinking is discouraged,” Sarah R. Olutola, an assistant professor of English at Lakehead University, wrote after the tweet garnered headlines.
This is a worrying trend, and readers must be careful to view posts on social media with an appropriate grain of salt, since the onus is on users to share truthful information. In fact, warnings and fact-checking after posts go live can only go so far, since some people assume everything without a misinformation warning must therefore be true.
Social media has brought incredible new ways to connect across the world, but it has also created new ways for misinformation to spread faster than ever, super-charged by the massive platforms wielded by the sites’ biggest users.
Take vaccine misinformation as an example. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health looked at 1.8 million tweets sent between 2014 and 2017 and found many attempting to sow vaccine-related discord came from various foreign troll accounts.
“Health communications have become ‘weaponized’: public health issues, such as vaccination, are included in attempts to spread misinformation and disinformation by foreign powers,” the authors, led by David A. Broniatowski of The George Washington University, wrote. They noted that these troll accounts and Twitter bots posted about vaccines far more than the average user.
“Such strategies may undermine the public health,” the authors wrote.
Indeed, online misinformation can have real-world health consequences: A recent study found exposure to vaccine misinformation could reduce the reader’s willingness to get vaccinated by as much as 8.8 percent.
Users with large followings online have been harnessing their accounts to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. For example, a recent report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate concluded about 65% of all vaccine misinformation could be tied back to a dozen influential users — people like Robert F. Kennedy.
But negative social media posts about vaccines go even further back: In 2013, Penn State researchers foundtweets about the 2009 H1N1 swine flu vaccine spread much faster when they were negative — especially when users found themselves in an echo chamber of anti-vaccine sentiment.
Social media platforms have been designed from the start to draw on the deepest parts of our psychology to keep us engaged — for instance, “likes” trigger our brains to release dopamine, rewarding whatever behavior led us to gain those likes. And the people running social media platforms know full well the powerful impact their sites can have, both positive and negative. Recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal has shownFacebook executives are well aware of the harm Instagram has on the way teen girls see their own bodies.
Psychology research must also be tapped, then, when planning a response to misinformation on social media. In research published last October in the American Journal of Public Health, Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, Anna Gaysynsky and Joseph N. Cappella said certain factors, like a lack of access to good health information, may influence how likely someone is to be swayed by a given post. They also said the best way to respond to misinformation will likely vary from situation to situation.
“An approach centered on simply providing evidence-based health messages or broadly debunking misinformation will likely be insufficient,” they wrote. “Interdisciplinary research is needed to develop additional strategies and identify the optimal timing, manner, and forum for responding to misinformation.”
The simplest solution is to head off misinformation before it happens, and that means calling for influencers to use their platforms carefully, and post factual information from which people can make their own decisions with.
Minaj was silent for more than three weeks after the tweet but is back now, promoting her verse on the British singer Jesy Nelson’s latest release. Is the damage done, or can she continue to use her platform to educate her followers? What should she do so?
Adapted from a post written in collaboration with Dr. Jack Turban published in Psychology Today, Can Celebrities Be Our Secret Weapon Against COVID-19?
Jack Turban MD (@jack_turban) is a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. His writing has appeared in Scientific American, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others.