When the surgeon general of the United States speaks, people tend to listen. So Vivek Murthy’s recent 22-page report proclaiming that the spread of misinformation through social media has become an “urgent threat to public health,” and that more needs to be done to combat the issue, is bound to get some attention.
He has a point: Social media is at the heart of misinformation.
But social media also has the power to drive public health discussion, a point that runs through the report but is never highlighted. That’s why we believe that solving the misinformation epidemic will require that medical trainees like us along with members of the broader public health community not only keep a sharp eye out for misinformation campaigns but that also actively engage friends, families, and loved ones with evidenced-based conversations on these same platforms.
As physicians in training and social media users, we have seen firsthand evidence of this positive side of social media. On Twitter, for example, adding the hashtag #medtwitter to a tweet makes it visible to countless individuals interested in the latest updates in medicine. Social media also offers opportunities for various stakeholders such as politicians, venture capitalists, academics, and others to share their insights and find solutions for the most challenging issues of our time.
As the U.S. engages in a campaign to increase vaccination rates and combat the rising outbreaks of the Delta variant, much of the conversation has centered on issues related to vaccine distribution, future health care transformations, and worsening health inequities. Moving beyond the pandemic, we believe this kind of cross-talk should be leveraged to create networks of professionals that share credible health information and ultimately chart a pathway for improved long-term public health.
Social media platforms serve as great ways for stakeholders to communicate primarily because these platforms have millions of users across multiple areas of expertise and are already optimized to facilitate interaction about shared interests. Since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the hashtag #Covid19 on Twitter has created a feed that doctors, public health officials, politicians, economists, and others have used to share their work.
The general public also benefits because this joint feed facilitates cross-disciplinary virtual panels that have helped educate and disseminate credible updates about the pandemic. Even though Covid-19 is biological in nature, addressing its societal implications require collaborations to devise innovative solutions, and social media has facilitated that cross-talk faster than ever before. What would have taken multiple phone calls and emails can now take a single retweet, message, or comment.
For example, one of us (P.J.) recently messaged multiple physicians over Twitter who were sharing novel insights into the pandemic. Upon connecting, the physicians expressed interest in creating a joint feed to share the most up-to-date news in health. What emerged was a Twitter account titled: “Health News Around the World,” which now is used by multiple physicians to share the most recent up-to-date health news occurring on a daily basis.
That is just one of the ways we have leveraged the power of retweets to share stories of what moving to a Covid-19 free world would look like. In fact, we recently took part in the #thisisourshot movement to help foster collaborations with national student medical groups such as the Student National Medical Association, the Latino Medical Student Association, and the American Medical Women’s Association to highlight issues of vaccine hesitancy in different communities. More importantly the This Is Our Shot movement also aims to support the broader efforts of more than 25,000 health care workers who are working to get our population out of this pandemic.
One of the most inspiring aspects of this campaign has been the opportunity to use social media for people to share stories about the communities they love. Ultimately, this campaign has promoted vaccinations as individuals not only feel heard but are getting information from sources they relate to.
Another example of social media facilitating cross-disciplinary collaboration comes from the release of Clubhouse, an audio-based social media app that allows people across the globe to join virtual rooms and talk about topics of interest, including Covid-19, vaccine distribution, vaccine hesitancy, and more. Since its release in April 2020, the app has skyrocketed in popularity and now has more than 10 million weekly active users.
Clubhouse is much like Twitter, but its competitive advantage comes from the fact that Clubhouse allows individuals to talk to one another through an audio interface. As medical students, we were interested in using Clubhouse to battle misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. We invited faculty members at Yale, where we are both students, who were actively researching Covid-19 and created multiple rooms in the All Things Covid club, which was started by a group of physicians to help answer questions about the evolving Covid-19 pandemic. These rooms attracted thousands of listeners and helped fight misinformation through voice-to-voice interactions that would have otherwise never occurred. Today, this club has nearly 45,000 members and continues to hold weekly town hall meetings, each of which promotes cross-talk across people of all backgrounds and helps set the stage for innovative solutions.
Instead of reining in the use of social media, we believe that the medical community should go on the offensive and fight misinformation on social media domains by coordinating networks of reputable individuals who can serve as sources of credible information on these domains. This will allow students, attending physicians, epidemiologists, health care entrepreneurs, and many others to engage with family and friends within and outside of medicine to help spread truthful information in the same way leaders with large platforms can engage their spheres of influence. Most importantly, social media will allow anyone in medicine and health care more broadly to promote inclusive discussions that get at the heart of individual concerns.
Whether it is by hosting interactive Clubhouse discussions that allow individuals to openly voice their concerns or creating trending movements like #thisisourshot, social media has the potential to engage and resonate with local communities. One of us (V.A.) recently had an in-person discussion with a staff member at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System who was reluctant to get vaccinated because of concerns that extremely rare side effects, like Guillain-Barré syndrome that might be associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, would be a greater danger than the virus. Upon further discussion, these concerns appeared to arise from online rumors. These concerns stemmed from what the staff member had read online. Although the conversation ended with the staff member feeling confident that he would not get vaccinated, given that he has already had Covid-19 and felt that Covid-19 was being sensationalized in media, it offered a glimpse into the need for the medical community to more actively engage in the social media arena.
Well-meaning discussions like that one that connect trainees, the academics who train them, researchers, and members of the public is what intentional social media engagement can foster. For doctors and doctors-in-training like us, the moment has always been right to prioritize science and public health. But it’s important that this be done by first taking into account the diversity of perspectives, experiences, and cultures that exist within the medical community itself and the broader society. Only by intentionally engaging in cross-disciplinary conversation can the medical community create the durable coalitions and political willpower necessary to improve public health in the face of current and future pandemics.
Victor Agbafe is a candidate for dual M.D. and J.D. degrees at the University of Michigan Medical School and Yale Law School. Prerak Juthani is a candidate for dual M.D. and M.B.A. degrees at Yale School of Medicine and Yale School of Management.