Amid Pandemic’s Confusion, Research Finds Tweets from Both Pro- and Anti-Vaccine Accounts Can Mislead—Although Not Equally
Rapidly evolving knowledge about COVID-19 has led to even credible sources of health information in the social media world relaying misinformation, new UMD research shows. But Twitter accounts associated with conspiratorial and anti-vaccination messages were far more likely to do so, researchers found.
It’s not only the conspiracy theorists or crusading anti-vaxxers: Even credible Twitter accounts with pro-vaccination views can be vectors of misinformation in a highly uncertain and rapidly changing environment caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a new study has found.
The researchers, including lead author Amelia Jamison, a faculty research assistant at the Maryland Center for Health Equity, and co-author Sandra C. Quinn, professor and chair of the Department of Family Science, studied 2,000 of the most active vaccine-focused accounts to understand how existing online communities contributed to an “infodemic” during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. In February, the World Health Organization warned that the growing infodemic–a deluge of both accurate and inaccurate health information–would be a major challenge in sharing effective health communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new paper was published Wednesday in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, and included undergraduate Anu Sangraula ’22 and researchers from the George Washington University and Johns Hopkins University as co-authors.
They found that though vaccine proponents shared unreliable information about COVID-19 and vaccines at a lower rate than vaccine opponents and other low-credibility sources, the novelty of the pandemic and constantly emerging data made it possible for well-meaning, credible sources to post information that later proved false.
"Whenever we have a pandemic of a novel virus, it will take time for scientists to fully understand the virus and its effects," said Quinn, senior associate director at the Maryland Center for Health Equity. "Understandably, the public wants answers quickly. One of the key things to communicate over and over is that uncertainty and the very nature of science itself means that we will learn new insights into the virus. That means that early statements, based on very limited data, will be proven wrong. It is one of the complexities of communication in an evolving pandemic."
It was vaccine opponents who shared the greatest proportion (35%) of unreliable information, including a mix of conspiracy theories, rumors and scams, the researchers said—more than three times the amount shared by vaccine supporters. And while automated Twitter bots often get blamed for uninformed-seeming posts, most of the tweets studied came from actual people.
On both sides of the credibility divide, the researchers classified the largest single topic of conversation as “Disease & Vaccine Narratives,” in which Twitter users made comparisons between COVID-19 and other diseases, most notably influenza. The researchers say these messages likely added to public confusion around COVID-19 and the seriousness of the virus.
In the midst of an infodemic, public health advocates need to make sure they’re paying attention to the full range of errors that need correcting—not just the most outrageous ones, the researchers concluded.
"Many of the prevailing media narratives have oversimplified the nature of the COVID-19 infodemic by focusing on the most egregious forms of misinformation coming from some of the usual actors—known conspiracy theorists, automated 'bot' accounts and state-sponsored trolls —but the reality is much more complex," Jamison said. "In this kind of communication environment, the public should recognize that misinformation may also be appearing in more subtle forms."
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