Brian Castrucci is an epidemiologist, general practitioner and president and CEO of the Beaumont Foundation. Frank Luntz is a Republican pollster and communications consultant.
It’s not what you say that matters. That’s what people hear. And what people hear on social media about Covid-19 in general, and the vaccines in particular, should scare you.
On the day Mark Zuckerberg announced Meta, John Carmack, Chief Technology Officer for Oculus (Facebook’s virtual reality device), acknowledged the potential harm in the digital world and said, “If there is a proven harm, then yes, we should try to mitigate the damage … I generally think the right thing to do is to wait until the damage actually shows up. ”
This is equivalent to the fire department only arriving at a house after it has been burned off. As has been made clear 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 had been linked to deteriorating mental health, increased risk of eating disorders and misinformation about cures for diseases such as cancer and diabetes. The question is not whether we should act. That’s why we have not acted yet.
In the real world, there are rules and regulations in place to protect the public. From food and product safety to air and water quality measures, Americans expect some degree of common sense protection against known harms for the things we use and consume daily. Why should a virtual world be different?
Social media has been armed to spread misinformation about Covid and the vaccines, which has contributed to lower vaccination rates and ultimately cost American lives. We do not yet know what the “metaverse” will look like, but it is not hyperbolic to assume that misinformation will solidify and spread in 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 use on our ability to save lives during the pandemic. Those who said they share information daily on social media are most likely to believe unfounded and inaccurate statements about Covid, including incorrect information about infertility, the mRNA vaccine’s impact on DNA, and the severity and prevalence of the virus.
Social media also affects people’s willingness to be vaccinated – or not. Just over half of the non-vaccinated respondents said social media pressured them to wait or waive the vaccine, and the vaccination rate among people who said social media was one of their primary sources of information was 16% lower than the frequency among the general public.
Even in this era of hypersensitivity to free speech and freedom of expression, as much of it deserves, 53% of Americans agree that social media companies should limit or eliminate what they believe is misinformation or misinformation about Covid and vaccines. The fight against misinformation goes beyond this pandemic, as 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 revealed. Regulators need to hold social media companies and others accountable and accountable by engaging the public health community and ensuring that Internet rules include common sense protection of public health.
Our nation, and especially the public health community, cannot be caught flat-footed again when the next crisis or pandemic strikes. As the digital world evolves, so must public health. In a new era of “techno public health”, collaboration between GPs 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 is setting up a “digital world” security office at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor the occurrence of misinformation and deliberate misinformation on social media platforms and support ongoing research on the effects of social media, misinformation and knowledge about public health and outcomes.
- State and local public health agencies create roles for health professionals in the digital society. Community health workers are trusted public health educators and real-world health navigators and can be trusted influencers in the digital space. Agencies can begin to develop these roles now by leveraging the resources of the American Rescue Plan Act.
When it comes to Covid and the vaccines, there is room for debate on policies like vaccine and mask mandates. And social media channels provide a place where ordinary people can have robust discussions. Facts, however, can not be discussed.
The harmful 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) 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 with broken trust,” she said.
When do we as a society decide that enough is enough?