Empathy, not enmity: Responding to COVID-19 misinformation on a social media feed

Misinformation about COVID-19 posted in Facebook groups by mothers was successfully monitored, diagnosed and corrected by a social media moderator with empathy and respect.

Misinformation about COVID-19 seemed to be spreading faster than the virus, especially on social media. Misinformation can undermine public health recommendations and endanger public health and safety. It is no longer enough to disseminate factual health instructions; Efforts must also be made to actively correct misinformation. A new study, published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, reports on a Facebook group’s implementation of a program to monitor, diagnose and respond quickly to misinformation by mothers committed to the health of their teenage daughters. At a time of increasing misinformation and heightened rudeness online, the multi-agency research team led by Dr. David Buller of Klein Buendel, Inc. and Dr. Sherry Pagoto of the University of Connecticut implemented a strategy that appears to have defused the debate and prevented a dropout among group members. Over 98% of the mothers remained in the Facebook group for all nine weeks of the study.

The social media study involved 303 mothers with teenage daughters who had participated in a previous study on preventing indoor tanning by underage people. The mothers averaged 42.8 years old, were mostly white, had college degrees, and were wealthy. They were politically diverse. The Facebook group was moderated by a community manager. The social media feed varied the information source in posts on four topics: social distancing, COVID-19 vaccines, digital and media literacy, and family communication about COVID-19. Each weekday, mothers received one social media post in three randomly assigned private Facebook groups covering all four topics, plus an additional post on a positive non-pandemic topic to encourage broad engagement. The posts in the three groups contained the same messages, but differed by linking to information from government agencies, close parents, or news media sources in the post.

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There were 135 posts and mothers viewed more than 77% of the posts on average. The community manager was responsible for monitoring and identifying misinformation in the mothers’ comments. Misinformation was defined as COVID-19 information that conflicted with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, or the World Health Organization. Overall, 13% of posts received misinformation comments from 20 individual mothers. Misinformation took various forms. In some comments, mothers directly presented false information or expressed their own negative opinion or opposition to COVID-19 prevention. In other comments, mothers indirectly presented misinformation. Most misinformation comments were in response to posts about vaccinations, followed by non-pharmaceutical interventions (e.g. wearing masks), digital and media literacy, and family communication. “An example of COVID-19 misinformation from the group was that ‘vaccinations would 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 opinions differed.

The community manager responded to 48 misinformation comments, except for a few comments where the same mother repeated the same misinformation. In response to misinformation posts, the moderator would address the person with empathy rather than hostility. “I would validate their feelings, which were usually worry, fear, insecurity or suspicion, without validating their facts,” she explained. Quarrels were avoided and misinformation was respectfully corrected. “We wouldn’t tell them they were wrong, nor shut them down,” said Dr. David Buller. “We wanted the Facebook group to be a safe place for open communication.” Why did the mothers continue to engage in this Facebook group at a time of division and hostility in public discourse? “I hope this is due to the respectful tone of the community moderator,” explained Dr. Sherry Pagoto. “Every concern is valid, even if a certain 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 from Klein Buendel and Dr. Sherry Pagoto of the University of Connecticut were the project’s several principal investigators. Other authors of this publication are Dr. Barbara Walkosz, Dr. Gill Woodall, Mrs. Julia Berteletti and Mrs. Alishia Kinsey of Klein 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 has tested health communication interventions, including via 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 Allied 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 focus is on the use of technology in delivering behavioral interventions for cancer prevention.

dr Barbara Walkosz is a senior scientist at Klein Buendel, Inc. whose health communications research focuses on skin cancer prevention, media literacy, and end-of-life care. She has been a director and co-investigator on National Cancer Institute-funded studies on skin cancer prevention in the workplace, outdoor recreation, tattoo parlors, and community settings.