False medical news, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Prof. Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou, UZH, Fellow and Leader, Visiting Assistant Professor, Media Lab/Social Machines, Assistant Professor, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Why is spreading false medical/health news dangerous in your opinion?
Probably the most alarming phenomenon in the recent history of contemporary media is the spread of misinformation across the media ecosystem, especially in the fluid online environment that proves accommodating for such content. In this disruptive media ecosystem, scientific or health misinformation is traced across the entire public sphere. One of these examples is the so-called ‘debate’ around the safety of vaccines. The spread of misinformation leads to a growing popularity of vaccine hesitancy in spite of the scientific data that systematically debunk its claims. Currently, we are witnessing the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases worldwide. To illustrate this with an example, in 2019 the USA almost lost its measles elimination status that was maintained for 20 years after the almost 1,300 cases of measles across the country. In many countries around the globe, the devastating consequences of partial vaccination for public health, led lawmakers to enforce mandatory vaccinations. However, if the spread of misinformation is not contained efficiently, the imposition of mandatory vaccinations is only a partial solution to the problem.
How could the general public be educated about the recognition of false health news, and how could awareness be raised on the misinformation spreading over social media platforms?
In the vast digital terrain and across the diverse social networking platforms, the diffusion of misinformation can get very easily out of control. The problem is much more complex to be addressed as health misinformation has started to infiltrate more mainstream channels. Politicians with a populistic rhetoric often endorse false claims about the efficiency of science. Media often use a fear-inducing language that amplifies the uncertainty in the public. Misinformation itself is mostly dangerous when it is adsorbed onto existing personal beliefs and perceptions. This way, false claims and half-informed arguments guide ill-informed decisions that may have serious implications for our own health as well as for the public health. I believe that in order to address misinformation, we need to introduce and accommodate initiatives that foster deep and insightful conversations with people in order to understand how their personal experiences have influenced the way they think and feel about the topic. Changing the content of information itself cannot address the challenge of false news effectively, unless we can understand in great nuance what makes misinformation appealing to people.
By which measures is the Fakeology project aiming at enhancing science communication and empowering public health policy?
My research aims at providing insights on multiple levels of how misinformation is spread and reinforced into the public conversation. First, I focus on the content and through network analysis and digital ethnography, I identify pseudo-scientific news and misinformed claims around childhood vaccination that is propagated in the digital space. These pockets of misinformation are further amplified when vocalized and sensationalized by prominent public figures, such as politicians, celebrities and activists. Diagnosing the different types of misinformation can help us understand which are the ones most prone to be propagated in the digital space and then explore best practices to debunk them. Second, I focus on people through hosting facilitated dialogue groups with parents to elevate their personal stories as a means of gaining insight into their different perceptions, concerns and values around childhood vaccination. Results and insights of the research will deepen our understanding of how pseudo-scientific news is diffused within social networks and how it affects human judgement and behaviour. Thus, my research aims at enhancing the efficiency of science communication professionals and empower media institutions, scientists and public health policy makers to introduce false-proof health literacy initiatives.