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

This entry is part 5 of 17 in the series July 2023

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 disseminate factual health directives; efforts to actively correct misinformation must be deployed, as well. A new study published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, reports on the implementation of a program for monitoring, diagnosing, and responding quickly to misinformation from mothers in a Facebook group promoting health for their teenage daughters. In a time of burgeoning misinformation and elevated incivility online, the multi-institutional research team led by Dr. David Buller from Klein Buendel, Inc. and Dr. Sherry Pagoto from the University of Connecticut, implemented a strategy which appears to have mitigated debate and prevented dropout among group members. Over 98% of the mothers stayed 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 a mean age of 42.8 years, and majority White, college-educated, and affluent. They were politically diverse. The Facebook group was 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, near-peer parents, or news media sources in the post. 

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 mothers’ comments. Misinformation was defined as COVID-19 information in opposition 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 misinformation from 20 unique mothers. Misinformation took several forms. In some comments, mothers directly presented false information or expressed their own negative opinions or opposition toward COVID-19 prevention. In other comments, mothers presented misinformation indirectly. Most misinformation comments were in response to posts about vaccination, followed by non-pharmaceutical interventions (e.g., 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 from Klein Buendel. Other mothers were concerned by the promotion of misinformation within the group, so there was a variety of opinions.

The community manager responded to 48 misinformation comments, excluding a few comments in which the same mother restated the same misinformation. In response to misinformation posts, the moderator would engage the person with empathy rather than enmity. “I would validate their feelings, which were usually worry, fear, uncertainty, or distrust, without validating their facts,” she explained. Combativeness was avoided and misinformation was corrected respectfully. “We wouldn’t tell them they were wrong or shut them down,” said Dr. David Buller. “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 stay engaged in this Facebook group? “I hope it’s because of the respectful tone set by the community moderator,” explained Dr. Sherry Pagoto. “Every concern is valid even if a particular belief is not.”

Read the article

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 from the University of Connecticut were 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 from Klein Buendel; Dr. Kimberly Henry from Colorado State University; and Mr. Joseph Divito from 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 over smartphones and social media. His research has been 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 focuses on leveraging 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 has been a Principal and Co-Investigator on National Cancer Institute funded skin cancer prevention studies in workplaces, outdoor recreation, tattoo studios, and community settings. 

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