“Internet and social media misinform thousands daily”

By Ken Perrott 14/01/2015


A recent analysis of the internet and social media illustrates the up-hill battle science and health professionals, and pro-science lay people, often face with misinformation and outright distortion of science. The authors show the problem for the case of community water fluoridation and concluded:

“The Internet and social media are misinforming thousands of people daily about the safety, health, and economic benefits of community water fluoridation. The leading anti-fluoridation website had 5 to 60 times more traffic than the two leading profluoridation health organizations. All Groups and Pages analyzed on Facebook were against fluoridation, while 99 percent of the videos searched on YouTube and the majority (70 percent) of fluoridation tweets on Twitter were anti-CWF fluoridation.”

This study drew important lessons for science and health professions:

Pro-fluoridation organizations need to have a better presence on the Internet and utilize social media to educate the American people about the facts on fluoridation. Individual dental and health practitioners need to educate their patients about fluoridation, so their patients will not be easily misguided by misinformation on the Internet and social media.

And, of course, these lessons are just as applicable to New Zealand.

The study is reported in the paper:

Mertz & Allukian (2014). Community Water Fluoridation on the Internet and Social Media. Journal of the Massachusetts Dental Society, 63(2), 32–36. (You can download a pdf here.)

They monitored website traffic for major fluoridation websites from June 2011 – May 2012 and fluoridation information on Facebook on April 3, 2012. In addition they collected search data for the term “fluoridation” on Twitter for 2 periods (March 1 – 14 and April 1 – 14, 2012) and on YouTube for April 3, 2012.

The data

I illustrate some examples of the data presented in the figures and tables below.

This figure shows that the most important anti-fluoridation website, Paul Connett’s Fluoride Action Network, had far more traffic than the Wikipedia fluoridation section and the institutional web sites (which are pro-fluoridation) on fluoridation.

web-sites

The situation for Facebook groups and pages was even more dire with 193 search results being “anti” while none were “pro.”

Table-1

The Twitter search also showed far more anti- than pro-fluoridation tweets, although the data shows  the numbers are influenced by important articles.

Table-2

Some observations

Of course this is a limited study and much more could be said about this situation, the business interests driving it and possible solutions. I list a few observations below:

1: This study is a snapshot in time. For example, Table 1 would look a little different at this time (January 2015) than it did in April 2012. There are now a number of specifically pro-fluoridation, or at least uncommitted Facebook pages and groups.

My brief search for Facebook “pages” and “groups” using the words fluoride or fluoridation showed about 8 pro-fluoridation, or neutral, pages in the first 50 results for “fluoride” and 2 for “fluoridation.” There were about 4 “pro” Facebook groups in the first 50 for either of these two search terms.

Things are improving. In New Zealand we have seen an increased activity of pro-science groups since the undemocratic decision (now reversed) of the Hamilton City Council to stop fluoridation. This was under pressure from anti-fluoride activists (nationally and internationally) and against the expressed wishes of the citizens. Similar fight-backs are happening overseas – in USA, Canada, Ireland and the UK. The progress is welcome  but more is required. Although I should note there is a tendency for anti-fluoridation activists to set up Facebook pages for many locations where there may have been suggestions of campaigns but the pages become inactive in a short while.

2: Who is financing these anti-fluoridation websites and social media activity? There is a clear connection between the “natural” health industry and anti-fluoridation organisations and activity. Paul Connett’s Fluoride Action Network is organisationally connected with Mercola’s “natural” health business (and anti-vaccination groups) through the “Health Liberty” organisation  and financial flows from Mercolla to FAN are well known. Similarly in  New Zealand the “natural” health industry, through the NZ Health trust, has financed legal action of anti-fluoridation groups (see Who is funding anti-fluoridation High Court action? and Corporate backers of anti-fluoride movement lose in NZ High Court).

3: Is there an underlying purposeful strategy behind then internet and social media anti-fluoridation activity? Definitely. I gave an example illustrating this in Anti-fluoridationist astro-turfing and media manipulation. Activist groups will create press releases pretending to be scientifically authoritative. These are picked up by the “natural” health web sites and magazines (and sometimes, if they are lucky) by the main media. They get coverage on Facebook pages and are tweeted – often automatically by internet bots and the web sites themselves. They can easily create “Twitter storms” this way and widely spread their misinformation.

Here are some typical examples that get repeated ad nauseum:

And, the misinformation cycle gets repeated. Information on Twitter gets reproduced in blog comments and included in web sites and press releases.

4: Institutional web sites are not really suitable for this sort of debate on the internet and in social media. This is partly the problem of a serious, rational or logical web presence challenging an often emotional web presence. A calm explanation of the science challenging claims appealing to preconceived prejudices and emotional needs.

Also, institutions traditionally have felt such debates are somewhat “below” them, preferring not to get into what they see as “street-fighting.” Recently I heard of a case where an anti-pseudoscience group had asked permission to use material from a professional dental site for use in a booklet. They were turned down because the association could not see why this was necessary!

This suggests that pro-science activists should consider taking the initiative, launching their own web sites, etc., and participating in these sorts of struggles, rather than relying on existing institutions. Similarly such activists should see they can play a far more active role on Facebook and Twitter than institutions can, or a willing to.

Conclusion

This study shows that people are in general being misinformed by social media and the internet about community water fluoridation. I suggest this is not accidental – political and business interests are actively encouraging this misinformation. In particular, the “natural” health industry plays a key role in promoting misinformation on fluoridation.

Recently things are improving a little with a fight back from pro-science groups and individuals. I suggest their activity is essential as institutional groups and media outlets are not suited for  internet and social media debates.

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