Doctors, influencers call on their peers to use social media to 'pre-bunk' dangerous misinformation

As medicine moves to proactive models of care, medical professionals are taking the same approach toward health misinformation on social media.

During Fortune's recent Brainstorm Health event, three medically trained health influencers discussed the importance of heading off the next big medical myths.

Jessica Malaty Rivera is a research program assistant at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Health Security and is known to the public for her Instagram presence. Through the COVID Tracking Project, she worked throughout the pandemic to use social media, podcasts and a partnership with UNICEF to counter COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation.

“So my 9-to-5 is data, and I use that even in my science communication because there is a science to it and there's evidence behind certain methods in that process,” Malaty Rivera said during the Brainstorm Health panel discussion. “One in particular is information inoculation or pre-bunking, essentially anticipating the logical fallacies, the conspiracies before they happen, as you see the news cycles spin things, and equipping folks to be prepared to make bad choices or good choices for their health.”

Malaty Rivera urged institutions to train providers and educators to better be able to speak to the general public and “take science beyond the laboratory and peer-reviewed journals.”

Labs are following suit and increasing public outreach through programs like iHeard St. Louis, an initiative run by the Health Communication Research Laboratory at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. The program’s expansion to four states was announced last week and will address inaccurate information about COVID-19 prevention, vaccination and treatment.

Most recently, Malaty Rivera has worked to put out a podcast miniseries to educate the public on why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responded the way it did early in the pandemic. She has previously worked to educate the public on the history and science of immunizations in order to weed out vaccine hesitancy at its root.

“Instead of dumbing it down, it's really about trying to elevate people's literacy so they can feel empowered to make those choices,” Malaty Rivera said. “It’s not shame-based, not fear-based. It’s about using a lot of inclusive language, leaning into my identity as a woman of color, as a mom making choices for my children and all those things added to the currency of trust in my messaging.”

Malaty Rivera suggests that in order to “pre-bunk,” medical professionals keep an eye out for logical fallacies such as the “appeal to nature” fallacy on social media. She thinks that even artificial intelligence could be used to warn of keywords being used so educators can be proactive.

AI analysis is already being used to assess public sentiment on social media related to statin medications used to help reduce cardiovascular events. In a study published in JAMA Cardiology last week, authors asserted that AI demonstrated potential to assess public perceptions of medical information through social media.  

The study analyzed 10,233 statin-related discussion posts to determine common discussion topics along with overarching themes regarding the reason for hesitancy in adopting the treatment. The sentiment analysis revealed that most discussions had a neutral (66.6%) or negative (30.8%) sentiment.

Megan Ranney, M.D., is the incoming dean of the Yale School of Public Health and is known to the public for her Twitter presence. She reprimanded medical professionals for waiting until the beginning of the approval process of the COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12 to start developing messaging when anti-vax messaging for the MMR vaccine predates COVID-19 by decades. “We lost our period of time to prep the public and to 'pre-bunk' those ideas that we knew were going to come forward,” Ranney said.

Ranney first entered the limelight with the social media campaign #ThisIsOurLane which sought to assert that medical professionals should speak out about injuries and deaths caused by firearm injury. She thinks medical professionals have a responsibility to educate the public on vetted public safety risks.

"The Public Good Projects just released a report saying that about a third of the worst purveyors of disinformation on social media are our physicians and nurses,” Ranney said. “How do we police that? It's a question that every board of medicine, nursing boards in schools of public health need to really take on.”

Along with COVID-19 misinformation, TikTok has publicly been known for videos regarding self-diagnosis of mental health disorders, most famously attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Sasha Hamdani, M.D. is a psychiatrist and chief executive officer of Focus Genie, an ADHD behavioral management platform. She was recently selected to participate in a healthcare leaders in social media roundtable at the White House.

Hamdani began creating content after patients came to her using misinformed TikTok videos as evidence of the condition. She worries that while social media can be informative, the algorithms that govern them are interest-based and therefore pose the threat of entrenching users in a self-diagnosed condition.

“I think that people learning more about their internal condition, finding the words to explain what's happening, finding relatable content, there's a lot of positive in that,” Hamdani said. “They’re using that information, hopefully, to go to a credible source, their physician, their therapist, to someone who can help them and guide them through this journey. I think it can get dicey when they're trying to self-manage.”

Ashish Jha, M.D., coordinator for the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response team, recently called on doctors to take a leadership role to counter medical misinformation and disinformation. Jha blamed erroneous information for the lingering threat of the virus.