Tag Archives: internet

Social media and science – the problems and the challenge

Social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc., – are a challenge for science.  Often considered frivolous or at least not serious, they are tempting to ignore. But it seems that many anti-scientific or pseudoscientific ideas a promoted by social media. What’s more, these new social media are very effective at promoting messages, especially in areas of social health, so we ignore the media at our peril. Social media are a fact of modern life and if we can’t beat them, perhaps we should use them ourselves. These are the messages I got from a recent study of the way public health misinformation is promoted via social media. The paper is:

Seymour, B., Getman, R., Saraf, A., Zhang, L. H., & Kalenderian, E. (2015). When Advocacy Obscures Accuracy Online: Digital Pandemics of Public Health Misinformation Through an Antifluoride Case Study. American Journal of Public Health, 105(3), 517–523.

Although limited to an anti-fluoride Facebook case study I believe that the findings are also applicable to other anti-scientific movements like anti-vaccination and climate change denial. Here are some of the findings in the paper.

Anti-fluoride Facebook groups are highly connected

The connectedness within and between anti-fluoride networks was measured to get an idea of their social influence. networks Facebook “friend” connections between members within groups and between groups was very common and overall the study sample showed a significantly higher degree of connection than in Facebook overall. This is probably the result of group members having similar ideology or other traits leading to a desire to form social connections. Social influences lead to group shaping of individual attitudes and behaviours related to health and not reliance on expert findings.

Social diffusion of scientific misinformation

Using an original source article the authors followed posts about the article to determine the degree of social diffusion. They found 60% of the time a reader would have to follow 2 to 3 links to arrive at the original source with such a search failing 12% of the time. This demonstrated that:

“on average, there was a high risk that antifluoride Facebook group members engaged in posts about the article would be forced to navigate through multiple pages to locate the original post or would never succeed in locating it at all, greatly increasing the likelihood for the spread of misinformation and misrepresentation of the scientific article’s content.”

Although not detailed in the paper I believe that key sources of primary information for such social networks is very often articles in the “natural” health or alternative health magazines and websites which have already misinterpreted and misreported the scientific literature.

Engagement and sentiment

The levels of engagement and sentiment of the most influential posts were analysed:

“to explore the user experience with social diffusion of information and to determine how these posts could potentially influence group member attitudes and behaviors. Considering the distance between reference posts and the original source, this is particularly important.”

The figure below illustrates their finding for  the 2 most influential posts in the social diffusion map. Interestingly:

“The most frequent type of comment about the posts and the type of comment that received the most engagement were the science-based comments . . . Science-based comments overall received a positive (profluoride) total sentiment score of 36 (additive over all comments), whereas all other types of comments received an overall negative (antifluoride) sentiment score of –47.”


“These results demonstrate that the user experience, when engaging with these influential posts, is just as likely to be negative and irrelevant to the original source as it is to be positive and reference scientific information (accurate or not). Our results demonstrate a high probability (1 in 2 chance) of encountering negative and non-science-based information about fluoride that is unrelated to the original peer-reviewed scientific publication under discussion.”

Social media overriding traditional health communication?

The new social media have given a new power to social networks:

“Historically, naturally limiting factors such as geography and communication barriers inhibited opportunities for strengthening networks with outlying views. Risky behaviors as a result of shared moral evaluations, such as opting out of  recommended childhood vaccination schedules and rejecting fluoridation, reverberated in existing small networks without necessarily scaling to dangerous magnitudes.”


“online social networking allows greater connectivity among networks through the increased visibility of group behavior; previously nonnormative behaviors can thus become normative through the use of social media.”

Now that minority ideas and behaviours have an online market they can spread through confirmation bias and the expanding social networks, and the strong ties in the networks reinforce the sentiments behind the spreading messages.
The group thinking and the “silo,” even protective,  nature of social networks means that:

“Expert opinion grounded in evidence that contradicts the sentiments embedded in a socially diffused message will be quickly rejected; acceptance of this contradictory information would be socially detrimental to the network, challenging its very identity. Thus marks the beginning of digital pandemics of misguided and incomplete health information in which evidence becomes entirely secondary to the sociology of the networks diffusing it.”

Are there lessons here for pro-science groups?

The findings of this research will strike a chord with sceptics and others who fight anti-evidence-based approaches to health online. They will easily recognise the social norms of such groups which leads to rejection of any attempt to inject a pro-science discussion. They will have experienced the put-downs and banning or blocking used to reinforce and protect those within-group social norms.
But should we be drawing lessons from this? The authors conclude:

“Traditional vertical health communication strategies, such as broadcast diffusion through peer review publication and media reporting, may no longer be effective because of the existence and viral potential of social diffusion”

Perhaps we have to accept that:

“the sociology of networks is perhaps just as influential as, if not more influential than, the information content and scientific validity of a particular health topic discussed within and between certain networks via social media.”

Rather than trying to beat this new technology perhaps we should try to use it ourselves more effectively. The authors suggest:

“Empirical social strategies for health communication should focus not only on high-quality digital information production and dissemination but also on socially targeted and custom-designed messaging that conforms to the norms and values of specific target networks rather than challenging them. Developing an appreciation for the sociology of target groups could assist public health experts in increasing influence in problem networks and could provide the tools to predict, prevent, or reverse digital pandemics.”

The internet has forced changes on the traditional methods of information dissemination in other areas so it is really not surprising to expect it to change scientific and public health communication. As the authors say in their final words:

“The public nature of social media is at once a barrier to accurate information flow online and a tremendous opportunity for public health research, innovation, and intervention. In an age when negative digital pandemics can go viral, public health communication management strategies must go social.”

See also: An emerging threat of “digital pandemics”- lessons learned from the anti-vaccine movement
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“Internet and social media misinform thousands daily”

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.


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


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


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.


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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The inverted ethics of doxxing?

Came across this word “doxxing” lately. According to Wikipedia it refers to “the Internet-based practice of researching and broadcasting personally identifiable information about an individual.” My introduction to this new word was in a discussion of the ethics of identifying people who troll on social media sites.


Credit: Curiosmatic

I can understand why some people must protect their identity when commenting on social media. Whistle blowers, etc., are obvious – but even seemingly mundane topics may need some anonymity because of jobs, etc.

But, apart from jobs, I can never understand those people who insist on anonymity when discussing scientific knowledge. Surely that immediately undermines their credibility – especially when they confront, or abuse, other commenters who have no trouble identifying themselves.

In my experience it is the anonymous commenter who tends to be the most abusive. So, why should ethical concerns about doxxing give free rein to the internet bully? I find myself sympathising with PZ Myers comment on this topic in his recent post The inverted ethics of the internet.

“It seems to me that there is a significant difference between maintaining internet anonymity to prevent being harassed, vs. anonymity used to enable harassment. But this distinction is routinely ignored, especially by the harassers, who just lump violating either into the category of the most sacrilegious of all internet violations, the total desecration of the holiest principle of all communication, doxxing. I suspect the only reason that “doxxing” has been elevated to such a sacred level of knee-jerk abhorrence is not out of some virtuous desire to protect the innocent, but entirely to protect the guilty.”

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The internet – Yeah, right!

Here’s something I picked up on Twitter from Tim Hart (@Timwellspent).

As he said “This is quite brilliant. What The Sun newspaper wrote about the internet 20 years ago.”

Brings back memories.


Thanks to HappyEvilSlosh we have the origin of this page at Hold Ye Front Page. This provides more information on the history of the Internet.

“Scientific” debate on the internet

In her post incoming woo – ‘stabilised liquid oxygen’ & other nonsense Alison discusses some of the pseudo science rubbish that gets published in newspapers. Particularly in the “Letters to the Editor” columns. Andre Picard discussed the same phenomena occurring on the internet (The Internet has changed the nature of scientific debate). He says: Continue reading