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Study Finds Twitter Is Used to Spread Health Misinformation - Part I

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A recent study, published in the American Journal of Infection Control, found that a single tweet can spread incorrect information to more than a million people.

An article in the New York Daily News reports that “a new study that examined the reach of medical misinformation in Twitter posts, found that a single tweet can spread incorrect information to more than a million people.”

Results from the study were published in the American Journal of Infection Control in an article titled “Dissemination of Health Information through Social Networks — Twitter and Antibiotics.”

For the study, the authors randomly selected 1,000 Twitter status updates mentioning antibiotics and mined them for co-occurrence of the following terms: “cold + antibiotic(s),” “extra + antibiotic(s),” “flu + antibiotic(s),” “leftover + antibiotic(s),” and “share + antibiotic(s).” This was done to “explore cases of potential misunderstanding or misuse.” Posts were reviewed to “confirm evidence of misuse or misunderstanding.”

The authors reported that “cases of misunderstanding or abuse were identified for the following combinations: “flu + antibiotic(s)” (n = 345), “cold + antibiotic(s)” (n = 302), “leftover + antibiotic(s)” (n = 23), “share + antibiotic(s)” (n = 10), and “extra + antibiotic(s)” (n = 7).”Based on their findings, the authors concluded that “Social media sites offer means of health information sharing. Further study is warranted to explore how such networks may provide a venue to identify misuse or misunderstanding of antibiotics, promote positive behavior change, disseminate valid information, and explore how such tools can be used to gather real-time health data."

A segment on Good Morning America reviewed the study results and spoke with Daniel Scanfield, MS, MA, one of the study' co-authors. The Good Morning America report noted that hundreds of users -- “around 2 percent of the studied tweets” -- posted “casual misinformation about antibiotics,” which, in turn, “reached more than a million of their followers.”

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Scanfield said that “when we looked at tweets ... we found that there are some basic categories like general mentioning of antibiotics or complaints about side effects and things like that, but there was also a category that was pretty interesting, where people were indicating misuse or misunderstanding of antibiotics… And we found that to be really interesting, because one tweet indicating misuse of antibiotics could be spread potentially to hundreds of thousands of people via the Twitter network.”

The Good Morning America report also noted that “one tweet about antibiotics for a cold -- which is not their intended use -- reached around 850,000 people. In other cases, the study found people often tweeted about not finishing their antibiotics or offering to share them with others.”

Click here for Part II


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