Physicians fight from the social media frontlines

As of November 2020, there are about 11.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 2,50,000 deaths from COVID-19 disease in the USA. Conspiracy theories thrive in times of great uncertainty, and the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a petri dish for them. Misinformation regarding the usage of masks, vaccine safety, and other pseudoscientific theories are thriving on the internet.

Many doctors, nurses, and other health care workers are taking to social media to deliver credential health care information to the public. Dr. Zubin Damania, a USCF/Stanford trained internist and a child of two physicians, popularly known from his online moniker ZDoggMD has been on the forefront. His channel is an important platform for sound health information. The hundreds of videos he has posted since 2010 have now cumulatively attracted 60 million views. His post,  “A Doctor Reacts to “Plandemic,” responds to the widely circulated pseudoscientific documentary Plandemic claiming the flu shot contains coronaviruses, racked about 3 million views.

Levels of vaccine misinformation have escalated dramatically in recent years on social media platforms. Even before this pandemic, a surge of vaccine misinformation led to worldwide cases of measles outbreaks, the most contagious among all vaccine-preventable diseases, with 140,000 measles-related deaths in 2019. Positive vaccine messages and the hashtags #DoctorsSpeakUp, #NursesSpeakUp, #ResearchersSpeakUp stormed throughout Twitter by clinicians across America to encourage vaccinations, with participation even by the U.S. Surgeon General.

Facebook constitutes the most popular social media venue for the sharing and consumption of anti-vaccine and anti-vaccination content. Other social media platforms have taken steps that exceed Facebook and Instagram’s current policies against misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracies. YouTube announced that it would start deleting videos conveying vaccine misinformation, building on an existing policy to delete “medically unsubstantiated” COVID-19 claims. Twitter has had a similar COVID-19 misinformation policy since March 2020. Pinterest eliminated misleading results for vaccine searches even before the coronavirus pandemic and later redirected searches to content from credible public health organizations.

ClearPath Strategies, a public opinion research firm, conducted a poll that reported 67 percent of Americans believed that returning to normalcy would require a safe and effective vaccine. But only 38 percent said they would be willing to take it within three months of the vaccine’s availability. Black, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander individuals have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The adoption of vaccines by these communities is lifesaving, but many barriers need to be addressed. So, it is even more pivotal now amidst this deadly pandemic for clinicians to be on the various social media frontlines to fight the misinformation and conspiracies about vaccine safety and deliver verified and accurate information to the general public. Timothy Caulfield, a health law and policy professor at the University of Alberta, outlines in his paper, “correcting misinformation is in fact an important health policy activity. But the timing and type of counter-messaging really matter.” He lists some actions to take, such as using facts, avoiding jargon, finding trustworthy sources, leading with the corrective information, and avoiding these things: Don’t shame, ridicule, or marginalize. Don’t target hard-core believers; aim for the general public instead.

With Pfizer and Moderna announcing positive phase 3 results for the COVID-19 vaccine and a potent vaccine on the horizon, health care workers should be prepared to mount a major communication effort to get to the required vaccination rate. A working group at Johns Hopkins University published a report in July 2020 that includes recommendations to U.S. policymakers and doctors for persuading the public to accept a future vaccine to prevent COVID-19. The report continuously shares data about the benefits, risks, and supply of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to build trust and increase public adoption of the vaccine.

Neha Pidatala is a physician and can be reached on Twitter @DrNehaPidatala.

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