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Would You Take COVID-19 Advice From A Rock Star?

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Medical advice failure from non-experts.

A new study recommends fighting medical misinformation by enlisting the help of celebrities. Is this really a good idea? We want to hear your opinion.

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Study Shows Cause of Disconnect Between Science and Society

A new study by San Diego State University researchers analyzing how information is communicated on social media during an outbreak of infectious diseases found that there is a serious disconnect between what public and government agencies say and how the public takes in the message.

This research is especially relevant in light of what’s happening today with COVID-19 and what will happen if and when a vaccine or vaccines becomes available in the near future.

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“The country and world have been rife with misinformation during the pandemic. What to do, what not to do, when should you wear a mask, what medication to take, is socially distancing necessary, will a vaccine be safe,” said Eyal Oren, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the SDSU School of Public Health and one of the lead authors.

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According to a news release from San Diego State University, the results of the study published in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health, are based on data gathered from a Hepatitis A outbreak in 2017 in San Diego that shares both similarities and differences with what we are experiencing with COVID-19 today.

The similarities are that both are highly infectious and serious diseases; social media was used by both governmental and public agencies as well as the general public; and, that there was inconsistent information being disseminated that led to confusion.

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The dissimilarity is that there was a vaccine available for Hepatitis A in 2017, but none for COVID-19 today. However, just like there is already doubt about the effectiveness of a vaccine for COVID-19 if we had one, the Hepatitis A vaccine was also questioned and doubt about its effectiveness and safety was quickly spread through social media back in 2017.

The researchers believe that the disconnect between the medical agencies and the public can be remedied if the medical agencies reach out to the public where the public is at. Namely, on Twitter, Instagram and other channels frequented by the public where the majority get their news and other information as opposed to the traditional web presence these agencies rely on for posting health information.

“Confusion from these inconsistencies can be reduced with greater dialogue between government agencies and members of the public,” said Lourdes Martinez, associate professor with the SDSU School of Communication and the other lead author of the study. “Agencies could also craft responses that empower and reassure concerned communities about vaccine safety.”

Who To Trust?

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But there’s another problem that the news release touches on that shows it’s not just getting the message to the people, but sending a correct and consistent message to earn the public’s trust.

“We continue to find a disconnect which is now compounded by contradictory statements, partly because information is evolving with COVID-19 and because agencies like the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have backtracked on earlier statements such as not needing masks,” Oren said. “So people have decided to use their own discretion on what to do.”

Clearly, trust is an issue and the news release points out correctly that if social media companies had actively scrutinized posts for misinformation and took down false information earlier on, there would be less misinformation continually floating around and clouding people’s minds.

“If the companies were vigilant and government agencies communicate the way they should, we would be in a completely different place right now,” Oren said. “But it’s not too late. Even if we started today, we could still improve our situation and people might change their behaviors in response to trusted evidence-based information, which would help bring the spread of this coronavirus down to manageable levels.”

Using Celebrities to Spread Awareness

While the study determined that, “…Previous research has found that exposure to misinformation influences vaccine knowledge as well as perceptions of vaccine risk compared with perceived susceptibility to diseases that can be prevented by vaccines…” and concluded that “…Our findings illustrate the ongoing need to develop and refine approaches for advancing health-related misinformation surveillance…,” one of their proposed solutions is markedly questionable—at best—as stated in the news release:

“To better engage the public on social media, they recommend seeking some star power to share vital information. To a 20-year old, Oren said, a rock star or an athlete like LeBron James will “have many more followers and hold more sway” than someone in a lab coat.”

In other words, to gain an audience receptive to health advice from a governmental or public health agency, we need to put a famous face on the social media message in order to get the public to listen and to accept—to build trust.

But is this a solution to the real problem? Whatever happened to valuing education and putting faith in actual experts who know what they are doing? Isn’t celebrity what got the U.S. in this mess in the first place?

Please let us know in the comments section below, what you think of the idea of taking your medical advice from a rock star or other celebrity. Your voice matters.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash.

References:

What San Diego’s Hepatitis A Outbreak Can Teach Us During COVID-19” SDSU NewsCenter, Thursday, October 15, 2020.

Twitter Communication During an Outbreak of Hepatitis A in San Diego, 2016–2018” Eyal Oren, PhD et al. American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), October 2020.

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