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How Vaccine Misinformation is Legitimized on Social Media

How Vaccine Misinformation is Legitimized on Social Media

Digital map of the world showing spread of COVID with orange circles

The spread of public health information through social media has become more prevalent. And combatting this harmful information about pharmaceuticals, and in particular vaccine misinformation, on social media is a growing challenge. Legitimate health information sources are fighting against a growing tide of misinformation online and especially on social media platforms. Although misinformation touches on almost all areas of health care, the most high-profile contemporary manifestation of this problem is vaccine manifestation. A recent study looked at how vaccine misinformation is legitimized on social media. As marketers, knowing how information spreads online is critically important, especially if you are interested in social media copywriting. In this article, we will break down what the study found about the spread of vaccine misinformation online. 

How Vaccine Misinformation is Legitimized on Social Media 

A study published online in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing in July 2022 titled “Marketplaces of Misinformation: A Study of How Vaccine Misinformation is Legitimized on Social Media” explores the process through which health misinformation from online marketplaces is legitimized and spread. The study included one content analysis and two experimental studies of highly legitimized influencer content in spreading misinformation. The authors of the study found that health influencers use various cues to legitimate their content. 

Vaccine Misinformation and Social Media 

One of the major challenges of our times is fighting health misinformation online, especially on social media. Social media has progressed from a place for social interactions to become a key platform for spreading news and information, including health information — or misinformation. 

Misinformation and conspiracy theories spread quickly on social media, and affect how people make decisions about their health. Despite attempts by social media companies to tackle vaccine misinformation, the problem has become endemic. The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the global pharmaceutical industry. Fake news about coronavirus spread fast


However, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, social media’s role in disseminating vaccine information was considered a major challenge to public health. That is because of an increased skepticism toward traditional modes of health communication. The filter bubbles created by social media’s private spaces have brought together misinformation and groups linked by institutional distrust. One estimate is that more than 100 million Facebook users have been exposed to some form of vaccine misinformation.  

What is Contributing to the Growth of Vaccine Misinformation on Social Media? 

In our modern society, individuals must navigate a web of complex health systems and information to make the right decisions about their health. The complexity of health information, the role of expert intermediaries in disseminating information, and the information dynamics of social media work together to create an environment where harmful misinformation spreads as rapidly as, well, a virus. 

Although there is a growing body of research on how vaccine misinformation spreads through social media, there is a gap in our understanding of how it begins and how it is legitimized. So, where is this information coming from? Little is known about the origin of this misinformation. 

Health Care Influencers and the Spread of Vaccine Misinformation on Social Media

Healthcare professionals play an important role in the validation of health information. Information on health is complex and people oftentimes rely on health professionals to interpret it. A lot of popular online health content is written by health professionals with the characteristics of influencers, in that they build a social media audience that they influence by leveraging their credentials. Unfortunately, however, sometimes these influencers are behind the spread of health misinformation

These influencers use more channels than just Facebook and Instagram to spread their misinformation. Alongside social media, the rise in self-publishing of books on marketplaces like Amazon gives “influencers” the ability to spread their misinformation further. Books are still seen as a credible source, even more so than social media. When the content from these books is leveraged on social media, its reach is magnified and poses a threat to individual and public health. 

In the first study, the study’s authors found that “health influencers” use various cues to legitimize their content. The authors analyzed 28 vaccine misinformation book descriptions on Amazon, and the corresponding 679 Facebook posts mentioning those books. The book authors create arguments against pharmaceutical firms by leveraging their medical credentials. Even if the author’s medical credential had been revoked by health authorities, it was still influential online in legitimizing the misrepresentation of scientific evidence. 

In subsequent studies, the authors found that credentials increase the perceptions of misinformation legitimacy for people who are generally supportive of vaccines. However, credentials decrease the same perceptions for those who are vaccine-hesitant. 

This result highlights the core role of prior beliefs in information processing. People who are supportive of vaccines tend to trust the apparent expertise of people who share medical information and therefore are more prone to legitimize it. 

How to Stop the Spread of Legitimized Vaccine Misinformation on Social Media 

The study’s authors suggest that the relationships between different online platforms seed the spread of false beliefs about vaccines. Though policy usually focuses on individual platforms to curb the spread of misinformation, the authors suggest that more effective policy interventions acknowledge the flow of information between online platforms. 

The authors also showed that the legitimacy of vaccine misinformation is conveyed through the misuse of medical credentialing. Policymakers and social media firms could be more active in verifying credentials when legitimizing information (and misinformation.) This would ensure a correct use of credentials, a delegitimization of vaccine misinformation, and limit its spread through social media. Ultimately, this would increase the quality of real information flowing between digital platforms. 

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