Health experts embrace social media to fight coronavirus


Social media has become an important player during the coronavirus outbreak, as global health experts are increasingly utilizing the platforms to communicate directly with the public about the rapid spread of the disease. 

Official bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as former government officials and academics are using avenues such as Twitter and TikTok to share information about the threat from the virus during one of the most daunting public health challenges in decades.

On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a livestreamed interview, detailing measures Americans could take to help combat the virus.

Conspiracy theories and unfounded claims about the virus, its origins and ways to combat it have multiplied in recent months, particularly through social media, causing what WHO has branded as an “infodemic.”

But health advocates say the platforms have also proved to be a critical tool to inform a public desperate for answers and to counter misinformation. In recent weeks, epidemiologists and other health figures outside government have taken to Twitter to begin explaining ideas such as social distancing and to highlight problems with the response including over testing.

Former government officials have been publishing candid assessments about ways to avoid straining the U.S. health system. Scott Gottlieb, a former Food Drug and Administration (FD) commissioner, has used Twitter to suggest requiring face masks for certain age groups and to explain more complex studies on response efforts. Laying out the goals of a paper he co-authored on Thursday, Gottlieb pushed for the FDA to launch task forces dedicated to the development of therapeutics and vaccines. 

WHO began experimenting with explainer TikTok videos in an attempt to disseminate accurate information about the virus. Many of the videos are predicated around hygiene and debunking myths about the disease.  

A large group of academics, doctors and economists also jumped in to fill the information vacuum. Caitlyn Rivers, a Johns Hopkins University assistant professor whose research focuses on outbreak preparedness, stressed in one Twitter thread that individual behavior during a pandemic was more important than business and event closures. 

Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard professor of epidemiology, and Max Roser, a University of Oxford economist, urged media outlets to focus more on testing than the amount of confirmed cases. 

“Repeating my plea to media: PLEASE stop saying ‘there are now X number of cases in the US, and start saying ‘as of today X cases have been reported in the US. Because of limited testing, experts agree the real number is far higher.’” Lipsitch said in a tweet on March. 15. 

Some experts, such as Faheem Younus, chief quality officer and chief of infectious diseases at  University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, are doubling as fact-checkers, refuting incorrect claims that the virus will disappear in the summer and that ibuprofen may exacerbate the disease. 

Younus’ first thread on the topic gained roughly 96,000 retweets and 200,000 likes, a sign he said that there is a global audience “hungry for good, authentic information.”

“It seems there may be a trust deficit. [People see] something coming from an expert in the field and they can associate with it,” Younus told The Hill. “Despite my 15-hour workdays these days, I felt like some good could come out of it. In times like this there is a calling, where we can contribute. That’s the driving force.”

News related to coronavirus has come to dominate the social media ecosystem in ways without precedent. In one week in March, articles about the virus in English amassed 500 million engagements, which includes likes, shares, and comments on Facebook, as well as Twitter influencer shares and Pinterest pins, according to NewsWhip, an analytics firm. In comparison, articles about President Trump the week of the Senate’s move to acquit him of impeachment received 250 million engagements. 

The top performing news article was a Washington Post interactive explaining how a virus like COVID-19 spreads and how to “flatten the curve,” a reference to slowing an outbreak to avoid stretching the limits of the healthcare system. 

“It’s relatively rare for ‘explainer’ articles to get that many engagements, so I would say this is a fairly unique aspect of this crisis,” said Benedict Nicholsen, head of editorial and research at NewsWhip. 

Social media platforms themselves are finding ways to offer authoritative information. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest have partnered with groups like the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) and WHO to highlight resources from the organizations when users search for content about the coronavirus.  

Twitter Vice President of Trust and Safety Del Harvey told The Hill that the company is working to place the latest facts about the virus at the top of users’ timelines and their Explore tab. The company also announced on Thursday that it would broaden its policy against harmful misinformation related to the virus. Unlike Facebook, though, the company does not have set policies on removing or flagging false claims.

Pinterest is blocking all coronavirus content that doesn’t come from internationally recognized health groups. YouTube launched a COVID-19 news shelf on its homepage in 16 countries to better highlight key news on the crisis.

“The response by social platforms I think has been more assertive than at any other time,” said Peter Adams, senior vice president of education at The News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that provides resources for educators about misinformation.

But Adams and others who study misinformation continue to voice concerns over how quickly it travels. Just as experts have tried to fill an information vacuum, sensational claims and outright falsehoods have continued to proliferate. 

Inaccurate claims are snowballing on WhatsApp, the messaging app owned by Facebook. And on Twitter, a post wrongly claiming that hand sanitizer had no impact against COVID-19 reportedly gained more than 100,000 retweets before being taken down. 

People without expertise in science and epidemiology have also found large audiences on social media, even if some of the posts lack necessary context or sensationalize details. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that “kids are essentially immune” to COVID-19, despite health officials saying that they can contract and transmit the disease.

Twitter said the post did not violate its new policies. 

“A lot of experts are speaking directly to the general public. It can be very valuable. The challenge for the public is knowing who is really telling the truth,” Adams said. “Trolls and imposters are also active in that space.”

The coronavirus outbreak, which originated in China in December, has infected more than 200,000 people worldwide, causing mass closures of schools and businesses globally. The closures of offices are impacting tech companies’ content moderation efforts, as the contract employees responsible have been sent home. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter say they are relying more on artificial intelligence as a result, producing fresh concerns.

Claire Mcardle, leader of strategy at First Draft, a nonprofit addressing problems related to trust online, said on Twitter that misinformation has mushroomed as people look for basic questions about the virus, noting there’s an urgency for “quality information” right now.

“The best way to fight misinformation is to swamp the landscape with accurate information that is easy to digest, is engaging and easy to share on mobile,” she said.

“It should also answer people’s questions and ultimately fears,” she added. “It’s the vacuums that are creating space for rumors to run wild.”

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Elon Musk Mark Zuckerberg misinformation Social media

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