Empathy not Enmity: Responding to COVID-19 Misinformation in a Social Media Feed

Empathy not Enmity: Responding to COVID-19 Misinformation in a Social Media Feed

COVID-19 misinformation posted in Facebook groups of mothers was successfully monitored, diagnosed and corrected by a social media moderator using empathy and respect.

COVID-19 misinformation seemed to spread faster than the virus, especially on social media. Misinformation can undermine public health recommendations and threaten public health and safety. It is no longer sufficient to distribute factual health prescriptions; efforts to actively correct misinformation must also be deployed. A new study published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice reports on the implementation of a program to monitor, diagnose and quickly respond to misinformation from mothers in a Facebook group promoting health for their teenage daughters. In a time of burgeoning misinformation and increased incivility online, the multi-institutional research team led by Dr. David Buller of Klein Buendel, Inc. and dr. Sherry Pagoto of the University of Connecticut, implemented a strategy that appeared to moderate debate and prevent dropouts among group members. More than 98% of the mothers remained in the Facebook group for all nine weeks of the study.

The social media study enrolled 303 mothers with teenage daughters who had participated in an earlier trial on preventing indoor tanning by minors. The mothers were an average age of 42.8 years, and the majority were White, college educated and affluent. They were politically diverse. The Facebook group is moderated by a community manager. The social media feed varied the source of information in posts on four topics: social distancing, COVID-19 vaccines, digital and media literacy, and family communication about COVID-19. Mothers received one social media post each weekday in three randomly assigned Facebook private groups, covering all four topics plus one additional post on a positive non-pandemic topic to promote broad engagement. Posts in the three groups had the same messages but differed by links to information from government agencies, closest peer parents, or news media sources in the post.

There were 135 posts and mothers viewed an average of over 77% of the posts. The community manager was responsible for monitoring and identifying incorrect information in mothers’ comments. Misinformation was defined as COVID-19 information contrary to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, or World Health Organization. Overall, 13% of posts received comments containing incorrect information from 20 unique mothers. Misinformation has taken many forms. In some comments, mothers directly presented false information or expressed their own negative opinions or opposition to COVID-19 prevention. In other comments, mothers indirectly presented incorrect information. Most comments about misinformation were in response to posts about vaccination, followed by non-pharmaceutical interventions (eg, wearing masks), digital and media literacy, and family communication. “One example of COVID-19 misinformation from the group was that ‘vaccines will cause my daughter to become infertile’,” explained Ms. Alishia Kinsey, the community manager of Klein Buendel. Other mothers were concerned about promoting misinformation within the group, so there was a range of opinions.

The community manager responded to 48 misinformation comments, excluding a few comments in which the same mother repeated the same misinformation. In response to posts with misinformation, the moderator will engage the person with empathy rather than hostility. “I would confirm their feelings, which were usually worry, fear, uncertainty or mistrust, without confirming their facts,” she explained. Fights were avoided and misinformation was respectfully corrected. “We won’t tell them they were wrong or shut them up,” said Dr. David Buller said. “We wanted the Facebook group to be a safe space for open communication.” In an era of division and hostility in public discourse, why did the mothers remain involved in this Facebook group? “I hope it’s because of the respectful tone set by the community moderator,” explains Dr. Sherry Pagoto. “Every concern is valid, even if a particular belief is not.”

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This research, published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, was supported by a grant and supplement from the National Cancer Institute (CA192652). Dr. David Buller van Klein Buendel and dr. Sherry Pagoto of the University of Connecticut was the project’s multiple principal investigators. Additional authors on this publication include Dr. Barbara Walkosz, dr. Gill Woodall, Ms. Julia Berteletti, and Ms. Alishia Kinsey of Little Buendel; Dr. Kimberly Henry of Colorado State University; and Mr. Joseph Divito of the University of Connecticut.

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Dr. David Buller is a senior scientist and director of research at Klein Buendel, Inc. and a fellow of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. Dr. Buller tested health communication interventions, including over smartphones and social media. His research was primarily funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Sherry Pagoto is a professor in the Department of Complementary Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut, Director of the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media, and past president of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. Her research focuses on the utilization of technology in the delivery of behavioral interventions for cancer prevention.

Dr. Barbara Walkosz is a senior scientist at Klein Buendel, Inc. whose health communication research focuses on skin cancer prevention, media literacy and end-of-life care. She was a principal and co-investigator on National Cancer Institute-funded skin cancer prevention studies in workplaces, outdoor recreation, tattoo parlors, and community settings.


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