Real or Fake? Facebook Zika Headlines Put to the Test

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Turning to Facebook for advice the next time you’re concerned about a health issue could end up misleading you.

A study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found that there could be reason for pause the next time you see a health news post on Facebook. Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin and Tulane University School of Medicine studied what happened on the popular social media website when looking at the spread of information about the Zika virus.

“I was taken aback by the misconceptions about Zika virus that I saw among the parents of the neonates I cared for. Most mothers thought that microcephaly caused by the Zika virus was a hoax and was actually caused by pesticide contamination from the industry who were trying to hide the spill by making up a Zika narrative,” said Megha Sharma, a senior pediatrics fellow in neonatal-perinatal medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, to CBS.

Public concern has been raised over the mosquito-borne illness. Birth defects in pregnant women and neurological conditions have both been associated as symptoms of the virus.

With more than two-thirds of U.S. adults checking in on Facebook, researchers decided to watch the spread of information about the virus on the site. Sharma said finding out that most people didn’t understand the virus in its entirety led her to research social media and its use as a source for health information.

“This mindset [of the mothers] was spiraled by the popular social media videos they had seen on Facebook. This motivated me to further investigate Facebook as a public health platform during the times of pandemics,” Sharma said.

The study found 81 percent of the 200 popular posts and videos concerning the virus on Facebook had accurate information and came from credible sources. Twelve percent of the posts were considered misleading. While researchers reported that four out of five Zika posts studied on Facebook were accurate, the erroneous posts were much more likely to be viewed, commented on and shared.

One video titled 10 Reasons Why Zika Virus Fear is A Fraudulent Medical Hoax received more than 530,000 views, 19,600 shares and had more than 600 supportive comments. It was the most popular post that spread false information, while more accurate posts were not as popular.

“Most Americans are getting their news online, and Facebook is a news powerhouse,” Sharma said. “However, unlike conventional news sources, health news on Facebook is unregulated and pseudo-scientific conspiracy theories tend to be more popular, hence bigger outreach, than accurate information. This can be detrimental during pandemics as it can lead to bad public health practices, panic and herd behavior leading to increased spread of infection. This is true for Zika, Ebola, H1N1, Avian & swine flu.”

The social media site has faced controversy over how it identifies and deals with trending topics. Researchers suggested flagging ‘unverified’ videos and stories as a possible solution.

“We propose that a strict criterion be used in screening posts pertaining to health crises and pandemics,” Sharma said. “It is vital for public health authorities to monitor the spread of misleading information that creates panic during these times.”