Body politics: The old and new public health risks of networked health misinformation
There are clear parallels between the tactics used to spread health disinformation and political content. For instance, in 2018, researchers found that large networks of bots and trolls were spreading anti-vaccination rhetoric to sow confusion online and amplify the appearance of an anti-vaccination community. The anti-vaccination tweets often referenced conspiracy theories, and some accounts almost singularly focused on the U.S. government. As a result, real-life users and orchestrated networks of bots are engaged in a feedback loop. Recently, political public figures have used their platform to amplify vaccination misinformation, such as tweeting that measles can help fight cancer. There is a long history of people using influence to sway public opinion about vaccines—particularly among celebrities.
These are symptoms of a larger societal crisis: disinformation campaigns aimed to undermine social institutions.
The search and recommendation algorithms that underpin our information retrieval systems are other modern tools mediating access to health information. When a user enters an inquiry into a search engine, they receive curated results. As so many people rely on search engines for health information, they are another important mechanism that is susceptible to manipulation. For instance, the websites of some crisis pregnancy centers—which are designed to look and sound like those of clinics that provide abortion care, but instead give misleading information about the negative effects of abortion to visitors—are optimized results for Google searches often made by women seeking abortion information.
Similarly, recommendation systems on popular social media platforms, particularly Facebook and YouTube, create easy entry points for problematic content. For example, a mother joining a generic parenting group on Facebook may subsequently receive recommendations for anti-vaxx groups. Bots, search engine optimization, and gaming of recommendation systems are foundational tools used by various actors to influence public health discourse and skew public debates — often blurring the line between medical mistrust and larger political ideologies and agendas.