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New study sheds light on doctors’ use of social media to spread COVID-19 misinformation

News
Article

Twitter, Facebook were most frequently-used platforms

COVID-19 misinformation text with smartphone ©Tierney-stock.adobe.com

©Tierney-stock.adobe.com

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic much of the misinformation surrounding the disease has come from people posting on social media platforms, including doctors. Now a new study examines the characteristics of these doctors are and the types of inaccurate—and potentially harmful—information they have been spreading.

The study’s authors looked at posts from doctors pertaining to COVID-19 on the social media platforms Twitter (now X), Facebook, Instagram, Parler, and YouTube between January 2021 and December 2022. They used Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for preventing and treating COVID-19 to define what constituted misinformation.

Outcome measurements for the study included categories of COVID-19 misinformation the doctors disseminated, the number and traits of physicians disseminating each category, and the type of platforms they used.

The researchers found that 52 doctors—50 licensed and two unlicensed--were using social media platforms to spread COVID-19 misinformation. The 50 licensed physicians represented 28 different specialties, with primary care practitioners (family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics and preventative medicine) accounting for the largest percentage—36%-- of those identified. The smallest category was surgical, which accounted for 16%.

Twitter was the most popular platform, used by 37 physicians with a total of 9.1 million followers. Twenty-three doctors, with 9.2 million followers, used Facebook; 19 doctors with 2.6 million followers used Instagram, and five doctors with 215,000 followers used YouTube.

The authors identified four broad categories of misinformation, the most common of which was that vaccines were unsafe and/or ineffective. Furthering fear and distrust of vaccines and promoting reliance on “natural” immunity were common subthemes.

Other misinformation categories included:

  • Promotion of unapproved medications for prevention or treatment of COVID-19,
  • Disputing the effectiveness of mask-wearing, and
  • General misinformation, such as about the virus’s origins and conspiracy theories

While doctors were far from alone in disseminating COVID-19 misinformation via social media, the authors note that they are “often considered credible sources of medical and public health information,” and thus “misinformation spread by physicians may be particularly pernicious.”

The authors add that few doctors have been disciplined for disseminating misinformation. They attribute this to licensing boards’ lack of resources for monitoring social media sites and the challenges some state government officials have raised to licensing boards’ disciplinary authority over doctors who propagate misinformation.

The study, “Communication of COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media by Physicians in the US, was published August 15 on JAMA Network Open.

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