A recent study sheds light on the psychosocial attributes of people who fall victim to health misinformation on social media. The findings, published in the journal Health Psychology, suggest that these individuals are more likely to have lower education, reduced health literacy, a distrust in the health care system, and belief in alternative medicine.
Health misinformation can influence the decisions people make concerning their health, posing a substantial threat to public well-being. Such false claims undermine people’s trust in science and medical practitioners, potentially leading people to disregard the guidance of their doctors. As study authors Laura D. Scherer and her team say, social media has amplified this problem, making it easier than ever to access and share inaccurate health information with a few simple clicks.
Identifying the type of people who are susceptible to such misinformation is critical to addressing the problem. A question that remains unexplored is whether or not people who fall for misinformation about one health topic tend to be susceptible to misinformation in other areas of health.
“While people probably attend to health information (and misinformation) more when it is personally relevant,” Scherer and colleagues note, “it is possible that some people are generally susceptible to health misinformation regardless of the particular health topic at hand and whether it is personally relevant or not.”
With the help of a team of experts, the researchers identified 24 social media posts that were either true/mostly true (12) or half false/mostly false (12). The posts were collected from Twitter or Facebook and discussed either statins, cancer treatments, or the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine. Scherer and her team then distributed an online questionnaire among 923 U.S. adults and asked respondents to rate the accuracy of each of these 24 posts. Respondents also answered questions probing the likelihood that a post would influence their behavior, for example, “If you were prescribed a statin, would this information influence your decision to take it?”
The participants additionally completed a variety of scales that assessed their health literacy, attitudes toward alternative medicine, scientific reasoning, belief in science, trust in health care, and tendency toward reflexive reasoning. They also indicated their level of education and whether or not they were taking a statin, suffering from high cholesterol, or had a cancer diagnosis.
An analysis of the findings revealed that accuracy ratings for deceptive posts about cancer, statins, and the HPV vaccine were all positively linked. This meant that respondents who believed in one of the false health claims were more likely to believe in another.
Among all the measures assessed, four stood out as the strongest predictors of falling for false health information. Respondents with lower health literacy, lower education, greater support for alternative medicine, and lower trust in the health care system were more likely to judge the false health claims as accurate and more likely to feel that such claims would influence their behavior. Moreover, these four predictors accounted for 19% of the variance in subjects’ accuracy judgments for the false information. To put this into perspective, the cumulative effects of all other predictors only accounted for 8% of this variance.
The researchers note that neither belief in science, belief in holistic health, or the presence of a health issue related to the topics at hand (i.e., high cholesterol or cancer) were reliably linked to acceptance of false health information.
“One potential implication is that people who are susceptible to health misinformation may be individuals who, perhaps because of lower health literacy, beliefs about alternative medicine and distrust of the healthcare system, are attracted to strong claims that appear to go against the medical status quo,” Scherer and colleagues suggest. “Overall, this points to the need for trusted medical experts to clarify and counteract misleading claims on social media, using evidence-based communication methods such as those described by Lewandowsky et al. (2012).”
The authors note that while their study offers evidence of certain predictors of susceptibility to health misinformation, there was still a large amount of variance that was not explained by the explored measures. They suggest that future studies explore other health topics such as false information about COVID-19 and include additional samples outside the United States.
The study, “Who Is Susceptible to Online Health Misinformation? A Test of Four Psychosocial Hypotheses”, was authored by Laura D. Scherer, Jon McPhetres, Gordon Pennycook, Allison Kempe, Larry A. Allen, Christopher E. Knoepke, Channing E. Tate, and Daniel D. Matlock.