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An Outbreak of Misinformation

In the age of social media, stories of disease epidemics spread across the Internet at an impressive rate. From Ebola to measles, rumors and anecdotes can travel fast. At the same time, news stories abound on so-called “anti-vaxxers” – members of the public who believe that vaccines are unsafe and refuse to have their children inoculated against common diseases.

In recent years, these two issues created something of a social media storm, culminating in the December 2014 outbreak of measles that began in Disneyland, California and traveled to multiple states. Parents’ failure to vaccinate their children was considered a crucial factor in the spread of the disease (1), and the outbreak brought the controversial topic into the limelight.

The decreased uptake of vaccination in some areas and populations has become a serious concern for healthcare providers (2) – but how do you convince people who are scared or mistrustful of vaccines to give them to their children? You could take a cue from social media…

“Misconceptions regarding vaccine use and safety are frequently shared and transmitted over social media,” says David Broniatowski, co-author of a study that mined available data to gain insight into how the Internet, the public, and viruses interact (3). “Furthermore, social media allow these misconceptions to spread rapidly, with almost no regulation or factual verification. We wanted to understand what makes these misconceptions spread and what strategies public health communicators could use to combat their spread.”

The team used 4,581 news articles concerning the outbreak and looked at their content, including statistics, stories, and “gists” – the bottom-line meaning of the information presented. They also looked at the number of Facebook shares each piece garnered. Ultimately, they found that articles containing a gist were shared most on social media, and articles containing statistics were also frequently shared. Personal stories did not greatly increase Facebook shares, which the team concluded may mean that stories are only effective when they also include a gist. “For example,” says Broniatowski, “someone might tell a story about how their child was not vaccinated and then got the measles after going to Disneyland. Such a story is likely to be effective if it communicates a bottom-line gist of, ‘If you don’t vaccinate your child, they are at risk.’  On the other hand, a story that does not communicate a gist is less likely to be effective. You’re left asking, ‘So what?’".

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  1. MS Majumder et al., “Substandard vaccination compliance and the 2015 measles outbreak”, JAMA Pediatr, 169, 494–495 (2016). PMID: 25774618.
  2. D Callender, “Vaccine hesitancy: more than a movement”, Hum Vaccin Immunother, 12, 2464–2468 (2016). PMID: 27159558.
  3. DA Broniatowski et al., “Effective vaccine communication during the Disneyland measles outbreak”, Vaccine, 34, 3225–3228 (2016). PMID: 27179915.
About the Author
David Broniatowski

David Broniatowski is Assistant Professor at the Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science, The George Washington University, Washington, USA.

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