Dr. TikTok is Ready to See You Now: Scrolling Through Misinformation to Find an Answer
May 11, 2023
If you’re like nine out of 10 Americans, you research your medical symptoms online before deciding how — or if — you want to proceed. When WebMD emerged as a source for medical intelligence in 1996, doctors and scientists were skeptical of its benefit and criticized it for providing subtle misinformation because of its connections to large pharmaceutical companies. Despite WebMD’s rocky start, it’s currently ranked as the number one online source for information on health conditions and concerns, with nearly 110 million visitors per month. With the uptick in reliance on social media for health advice during the height of COVID-19, social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter have exploded with scientific material of varying quality and accuracy.
The potential value of these digital channels lies in their ability to reach audiences where they are. But, balancing that value while discouraging the dissemination of misinformation is the key challenge social networks and public health authorities now face.
Sharing health and science messages from social platforms has several advantages over traditional media. To start, they can reach a wide audience quickly. A 2022 Pew Report reported that roughly a third of U.S. adults say they regularly get news from Facebook, while 25% of adults use YouTube and 14% of adults rely on Twitter. Researchers also found that 95% of teenagers used YouTube, 67% used TikTok, and 62% used Instagram—with nearly half of them saying they used the internet “almost constantly.”
The trust they place in these channels is high, too; adults under 30 are almost as likely to trust information on social media sites as information from national news outlets. It then comes as no surprise that public health officers reported social media as the first method they use to communicate about infectious disease because it reaches the widest audience. Even when it comes to raising awareness for health issues in remote areas around the world, social media is the preferred channel.
Despite these advantages, there are inherent challenges of using social platforms for science and health communication. TikTok, for example, has been scrutinized for directing younger users to content that could damage their mental health and body image. As individuals continue to read or watch a topic, their feed narrows to include more of what they’ve just read, leading to potentially harmful content, which can significantly impact their understanding of the world and their physical and mental health. In some cases, TikTok trends have even driven teenagers to engage in deadly behavior. As algorithms continue to churn out relevant posts, users often receive information from content creators who lack authority on the topics they preach.
At the same time, influencers who are professionals in their field dedicate their channels to providing evidence-based content to expose misinformation and make safer habits go viral—but right now it’s ultimately up to users to determine what is accurate. This “buyer beware” situation, exacerbated by a lack of clear policies and consistent standardization across platforms, enables the spread of disinformation and misinformation. It’s untenable when users depend on these platforms in their search for accurate advice or background on healthcare, self-care, and science.
Digital platforms—and content creators—can and must take measures to ensure scientific information is being communicated clearly and accurately.
First, more transparency is needed regarding who is posting. Some platforms like Twitter offer different types of page verifications to increase transparency about whether an account is an official government website or an AI bot. While seemingly helpful, verification changes at Twitter now allow users to purchase verification symbols, which is causing concern that reputable sources will be increasingly susceptible to impersonation, thus putting the onus back on the viewer to evaluate a content’s source.
Second, platforms should take measures to ensure that the posted content is accurate and provide features that let users evaluate the credibility of it for themselves. Recognizing the need to educate users about the accuracy of posts, reputable institutions like Johns Hopkins have even developed guides to help users determine the authenticity of social content and the reliability of creators. During the height of COVID-19, Facebook recognized that false information was being spread about vaccines and implemented policies to combat misinformation.
Third, platforms should consider implementing features that clarify why certain posts are appearing in one’s feed and provide guardrails to prevent content that could threaten users’ mental or physical health. Instagram, for example, announced a policy to make the platform safer for younger members by blocking posts to younger teens that promoted the use of certain weight-loss products and cosmetic procedures.
Finally, it is incumbent upon everyone who cares about effective and accurate health and science communication to call out and correct individuals and platforms that disseminate disinformation. Furthermore, we should strive to hold purveyors of disinformation accountable for the damage they do not only to human health but also to the broader concept that scientific fact exists independent of one’s personal beliefs or perspectives.
Given how many people increasingly rely on social platforms for health and science information, and the success these channels have in reaching remote communities and varying demographics, the potential benefits of using these platforms are huge. While there are still challenges around platform transparency and the lack of standardization, health and science information shared on social channels is a great resource. When platforms are used correctly, they have the power to raise awareness of treatments and potentially life-saving measures. If platform developers, creators, and users take the necessary steps to ensure content is accurate and reliable—and hold disseminators of disinformation accountable—social platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and others have every opportunity to become key channels for science and health education.