Timothy Caulfield is a professor at the University of Alberta, Alumni Fellow with the Trudeau Foundation, and author of The Science of Celebrity … or Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?
In an effort to stem the tide of bunk – the high volume of misinformation about the coronavirus spreading online – many social-media platforms have worked to redirect their users to the truth. Searching the word “coronavirus” on Twitter, for instance, leads to a reminder to “know the facts” and, in Canada, a link to the federal Public Health Agency; Instagram has taken a similar approach. Some go even further: Pinterest is limiting its search results on the coronavirus to images from “internationally-recognized health organizations.”
But while the use of warnings and redirects by social-media platforms are useful and can have an impact on the uptake of misinformation, the results can be modest and, depending on the strategy deployed, can have unintended consequences, including increasing the perceived accuracy of posts that don’t have a warning, whether they’re true or not. And much – perhaps even most – of the relevant misinformation won’t trigger a warning or redirect; people may be searching for related topics, such as issues associated with the concept of immunity, that do not use words or phrases that cause the platform protections to kick in.
To get a sense of the scale of the problem, I looked at how the phrase “boosting our immune system” is being represented on social media. This concept is everywhere right now: it is being pushed by wellness gurus, supplement companies, professional athletes, alternative medicine providers and holistic nutritionists. But in reality, the immune system is fantastically complex and can’t be “boosted.” (Even if you could, you wouldn’t want to. An overactive immune response is what leads to things such as anaphylaxis and autoimmune diseases.) The bottom line: There is no evidence that food, supplements, essential oils, spinal manipulation, IV vitamin infusions or really any product can enhance the functioning of the immune system in a manner that would provide extra protection against the coronavirus.
But when I searched one of the most popular platforms (Instagram, with its more than one billion active users) using its most popular hashtag on the topic (#immunebooster), I found more than 266,000 posts. Of the top 10 results – all of which were posted within the past few weeks – seven connected immune boosting to the current coronavirus crisis, usually with the use of related hashtags such as #stayhome or #virus, or phrases such as “with all that’s going on in the world.”
Eight out of 10 provided explicit advice on how to boost the immune system, including using yoga moves, taking supplements, eating turmeric and drinking “natural” (whatever that means) energy shots. I scrolled through the next 100 or so posts and while many were largely benign – such as beautiful pictures of food that simply included the #immunebooster hashtag – I could not find a single scientifically accurate representation of “immune boosting.”
The associated Instagram stories – where users post photos and short videos that disappear after 24 hours – were even worse than the more permanent posts. The first 15 I viewed contained explicit or implicit claims that things such as turmeric, supplements, sea moss and lemon tea can boost our immune system by including the hashtag #germskiller. And – no surprise – many of the posts and stories linked back to companies and clinics selling products, including supplements, cookbooks and essential oils.
Some may believe this kind of social-media messaging is largely harmless. Do people really go to Instagram for definitive science on the functioning of the immune system? But the ubiquity of these uncritical portrayals of the myth of immune boosting can help to legitimize the concept and, as a result, make it easier for those marketing unproven therapies, products and potions. Research has consistently found that prior exposure to misinformation makes it more believable, in what is called the “illusory truth effect” – and it’s compounded when the message is delivered by compelling and authentic-feeling narratives and images, which is exactly the point of a platform like Instagram.
Meaningfully countering misinformation on social media will require more than warnings and redirects. It will require a host of evidence-based strategies, including science-informed voices populating social-media platforms with accurate, engaging and searchable content. And it will require a direct refutation of inaccuracies by authoritative voices, including government, health care regulators and public health agencies.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to encourage the users of social media to be more critical of the content. Recent research by University of Regina psychology professor Gordon Pennycook and his colleagues, for instance, found that “nudging people to think about accuracy is a simple way to improve choices about what to share on social media.”
When it comes to immune boosting, you can ignore all of the social-media noise: A healthy immune system benefits from sleep, exercise and a balanced diet, and beyond those straightforward steps, there isn’t much you can do to enhance your immune response, at least until a vaccine is available. But for now, we can all boost our immunity to the social-media bunk. Let’s all think before we share.
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