Brian Castrucci is an epidemiologist, public health practitioner and president and CEO of the Beaumont Foundation. Frank Luntz is a Republican pollster and communications consultant.
It doesn’t matter what you say. That’s what people hear. And what people hear on social media about Covid-19 in general, and especially the vaccines, should scare you.
On the day Mark Zuckerberg announced Metan, John Carmack, the consulting chief technology officer for Oculus (Facebook’s virtual reality unit), acknowledged the potential damage in the digital world, saying: “If damage is proven, then yes, we should. Try mitigate the damage … I think in general the right thing to do is wait until the damage actually manifests. ”
This is similar to the fire brigade arriving at a house only after it is burned to the ground. As was evident during the Covid pandemic, we are already too late.
The impact of social media on health goes beyond Covid. Long before the pandemic, social media was linked to deteriorating mental health, increased risk for eating disorders and misinformation about treatments for diseases such as cancer and diabetes. The question is not whether we should act. That’s why we haven’t acted yet.
In the real world, there are rules and regulations to protect the public. From food and product safety to air and water quality measures, Americans expect some level of ordinary protection from known damage to the things we use and consume on a daily basis. Why should a virtual world be different?
Social media was armed to spread misinformation about Covid and the vaccines, which contributed to lower vaccinations and, ultimately, cost American lives. We still don’t know what the “metaverse” will look like, but it’s not hyperbolic to assume that misinformation will get worse and spread the same way, if not worse.
Morning Consult conducted a recent poll for us that provides further evidence of the negative impact of social media on our ability to save lives during the pandemic. Those who said they share information on a daily basis on social networks most likely believe baseless and inaccurate statements about Covid including incorrect information about infertility, the effect of the mRNA vaccine on DNA and the severity and prevalence of the virus.
Social media also affects people’s willingness to get vaccinated – or not. Just over half of the unvaccinated respondents said social media was pushing them to wait or give up the vaccine, and the vaccination among people who said social media was one of their main sources of information was 16% lower than the rate among the general public.
Even in this era of hypersensitivity to free speech and expression, much of it deserved, 53% of Americans agree that social media companies should limit or eliminate what they determine to be misinformation or misinformation about Covid and vaccines. The fight against misinformation goes beyond this pandemic because false and misleading information poses a real and measurable threat to our collective and individual health.
We have the opportunity to address the vulnerabilities that the pandemic has exposed. Regulators must hold social media companies and others accountable and accountable, engaging the public health community and ensuring that Internet regulations include common sense public health protections.
Our nation, and especially the public health community, cannot be caught up again immediately when the next crisis or pandemic hits. As the digital world evolves, so does public health. In a new era of “technical public health,” collaboration between public health practitioners and social media could include:
- Partnerships between social media companies and public health practitioners to create, adopt, and implement accepted public health principles and protocols for the digital world.
- Congress creating a “digital world” security office at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor incidence of misinformation and intentional misinformation on social media platforms and support ongoing research on the effects of social media, misinformation, and public health knowledge and outcomes.
- State and local government public health agencies creating roles for digital community health workers. Community health workers are reliable educators in public health and healthcare in the real world and could be reliable influencers in the digital space. Agencies can begin developing these roles now, utilizing U.S. rescue resources.
When it comes to Covid and the vaccines, there is room for debate on policies such as vaccine and mask mandates. And social media channels provide a place where ordinary people can have empowering discussions. However, facts are not debatable.
The detrimental effect of misinformation is not hypothetical – it is real, and it is personal. Alaska’s chief physician, Dr. Anne Zink, recently wrote about her observations as an emergency physician.
“My patient (who remains hospitalized) has suffered not only because of the virus, but also because of the deadly combination of misinformation and misinformation in a broken health care system, in a country of broken faith,” she said.
When do we decide as a society that is enough?