The Experience of Combatting Misinformation on Social Media: Tales from the Frontlines of a Global Pandemic
The swift global spread of COVID‑19 has been accompanied by a massive onslaught of information on social media (SM), including a considerable amount of misinformation (information that is false or misleading). From U.S. President Trump’s early claims of hydroxychloroquine being a possible preventive or treatment method to more recent viral claims that one can prevent COVID‑19 infection by snorting cocaine or drinking rubbing alcohol, we have seen misinformation spread across numerous SM platforms resulting in needless deaths and hospitalizations. With an increasing number of people starting to rely on SM for information, the sheer number of false and often dangerous claims perpetuated on these sites necessitates action. Misinformation is eroding public trust in government and health agencies, effectively mitigating COVID‑19 response strategies. Experts, including scientists, researchers, academics, and health professionals are well-situated to hold back the tide of COVID‑19 misinformation, and many are doing exactly that. However, what happens when constantly refuting misinformation becomes too much? What happens on SM platforms when experts are too hesitant or burnt out to communicate scientific consensus within discourses where misinformation is gaining traction or worse, proliferating?
In the fight against misinformation on SM, we are seeing increasing calls for experts to engage with users in real-time and refute misinformation to ensure beliefs founded on false information do not take hold. Yet, there is limited information exploring the experience of combating misinformation. Therefore, the purpose of the research is to explore the experiences of experts who regularly refute COVID‑19 misinformation, including: (a) how experts perceive and manage the impacts of the current infodemic; (b) how regularly refuting misinformation on SM impacts one’s self-perception and mental well-being; and (c) how an attack or challenge on SM impacts one’s intent to continue engaging in science communication on SM platforms. Understanding this experience is critical in order to support experts in fulfilling this new role by aiding them to maximize the potential benefits while also minimizing the socio-psychological toll. Using an exploratory qualitative research approach, Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), we will interview experts who are currently engaged in combatting COVID‑19 misinformation on various SM platforms. Interviews will center on specific situations that participants identified as having an optimal outcome and also situations they found particularly stressful when refuting misinformation. When possible, we will capture the accompanying SM posts from these situations to provide context and add further richness to this exploration.
Experts are increasingly being called upon to counter misinformation as both an act of public service and as a duty in monitoring how their work, and work within their area of expertise, is portrayed within the public sphere. To support such role, we urgently need to identify what this role entails and the potential impacts it can have on one’s well-being. The findings of this research will provide insight into how this role can be supported and enable us to develop a framework to help experts who engage in refuting misinformation on SM maximize the positive outcomes and minimize the social-psychological toll.