COVID-19 misinformation spread on social media by US physicians

In a recent study published in Jama Network Open, researchers rigorously evaluated the harm caused by coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) misinformation propagated through high-use social media platforms by physicians in the United States (US).

Study: Communication of COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media by Physicians in the US. Image Credit: Twin Design/Shutterstock.comStudy: Communication of COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media by Physicians in the US. Image Credit: Twin Design/Shutterstock.com

Background

Many platforms spread false, inaccurate, or misleading COVID-19 information early in the pandemic. However, the COVID-19 misinformation spread by physicians was the most pernicious as they are considered reliable sources of medical information.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other entities called for action to limit physician-propagated COVID-19 misinformation. Due to a lack of resources in medical licensing boards to monitor the internet, few physicians faced disciplinary action.

Studies have yet to examine the extent of US physician-propagated COVID-19 misinformation on social media platforms and other online sources regarding COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, mask use, and its associated outcomes.

Evaluating its potential impact could help understand whether its limitation prevented COVID-19 deaths and mistrust in the scientific community and institutions.

Despite the widespread availability of vaccines, vaccination rates in the US varied by region throughout the pandemic. Likewise, people in many US states did not adopt other individual-level preventive health behaviors related to COVID-19 due to unclear or incorrect guidance. 

Consequently, an estimated 1,128,000 COVID-19 deaths occurred in the US by May 11, 2023, of which nearly one-third were preventable if people had adhered to public health recommendations.

About the study

In the present mixed methods study, researchers focused on three main outcomes, as follows:

i) Characterizing the types of US physician-propagated COVID-19 misinformation; 

ii) Determining the online platforms used; and 

iii) Evaluating the characteristics of the physicians spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

They classified misinformation as COVID-19 medication and vaccine-related, related to mask use, social distancing, and other false claims. 

Further, the team performed extensive structured searches between January 2021 and December 2022 on highly used social media websites (Twitter, YouTube, etc.) and news sources, e.g., The New York Times. They also identified physicians' medical specialty and state of licensure. 

Furthermore, the team extracted the number of followers each physician had on four big social media platforms, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, to estimate the reach of their messages and perform qualitative content analysis.

Specifically, they calculated the total, average, and interquartile range (IQR) for the number of followers these physicians had on all four platforms.

Results

The study results showed that physician-propagated COVID-19 misinformation reached many people during the pandemic, and physicians from several medical specialties spread all across the US contributed to this malicious infodemic.

The content of the US physicians-propagated misinformation was comparable to the misinformation spread by other entities. Some of these physicians belonged to organizations that became more vocal during the COVID-19 pandemic for renewed attention.

One of the intentions behind this endeavor was profitability, as evidenced by the profit made by America's Frontline Doctors. They charged $90 per consultation to prescribe drugs like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin to COVID-19 patients.

Currently, no federal laws in the US regulate medical misinformation on social media platforms; consequently, this phenomenon might persist.

Another challenge would be understanding the significance of transparency and reproducibility of the process by which federal agencies gather scientific evidence related to COVID-19.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Energy demonstrated that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 originated from a laboratory leak. Later, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence favored its zoonotic origin.

Conclusions

The study raised public health, professional, and ethical concerns related to US physicians' propagation of misinformation about COVID-19 on social media and other online platforms.

It highlighted the urgent need for ethical and legal guidelines to cease its propagation.

The need of the hour is realizing that high-quality healthcare depends on the trust between healthcare professionals and society. All conspiracy theories and misinformation spread about COVID-19 on social media by physicians put patients at risk of preventable outcomes, including death. 

Federal and state governments should respond in a coordinated manner and devise and release ethical and legal guidelines to prevent the propagation of misinformation to mitigate another unlikely event (a pandemic or not) posing a public health threat.

Journal reference:
Neha Mathur

Written by

Neha Mathur

Neha is a digital marketing professional based in Gurugram, India. She has a Master’s degree from the University of Rajasthan with a specialization in Biotechnology in 2008. She has experience in pre-clinical research as part of her research project in The Department of Toxicology at the prestigious Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI), Lucknow, India. She also holds a certification in C++ programming.

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