It’s no novelty that online misinformation has gone unchecked during the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. vaccine rollout, whether content about unproven therapies or anti-vaccination sentiment. But it’s becoming similarly clear that health misinformation can be especially dangerous for vulnerable communities.
A new study by arthritis research and advocacy organization CreakyJoints Español found that inaccurate YouTube videos about rheumatoid arthritis have far more views than factually sound ones. The three most viewed misleading videos about rheumatoid arthritis (at 1.45 million views each) had been viewed more than twice as many times as the accurate ones (660,000 views).
The issue has become increasingly problematic during the pandemic, as public health officials and President Biden have pointed out the real health consequences of misinformation. Recently, Democratic lawmakers called for stricter government regulations on large tech and social media companies to curb the spread of misinformation on their platforms.
The CreakyJoints study highlights how misinformation plagues marginalized communities that are already experiencing health disparities when it comes to many health conditions, much less COVID-19. Research shows that Hispanic patients are more likely to be infected, hospitalized or die from the virus compared to their white counterparts.
“If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s about the importance of receiving adequate public health information and the difficulty of disseminating this information, especially to already marginalized communities, where misinformation is rampant,” said Daniel Hernandez, director of medical affairs and Hispanic outreach for Global Healthy Living Foundation, who co-authored the study.
The report’s main takeaway was that videos rampant with misinformation appear to have a common thread: promising or promoting a cure for rheumatoid arthritis. In reality, the disease has no cure. The accurate videos, on the other hand, concentrated on technical explanations of the disease.
Hernandez said that comments under the misleading videos were about non-pharmacological and alternative treatments, rather than medically proven therapies. When examining the exact words and phrases that garnered attention in the comments, the authors found that viewers responded most to expressions such as “tratamiento anti-artritis (anti-arthritis treatment)” or “poseen propiedades medicinal (possesses medicinal properties).” The inaccurate videos also used simpler language, whereas the scientifically correct ones were more technical.
Hernandez believes viewers are often searching for a quick solution to their health issues. As a result, they tend to gravitate towards content that promises a cure.
“It seems the primary focus is trying to find something novel that users can hold onto and that makes them expect something different than if they’d seen a doctor, or what their doctor has told them,” he explained. “Or if they haven’t seen a doctor, it seems it’s a positive reinforcement for them to not seek treatment. This is very evident in the fact that our Hispanic patients are nearly twice as likely to become disabled from arthritis and experience joint damage than other populations.”
Hernandez added that misinformation videos leverage this approach to their advantage. “With no real accountability, these authors are able to create any type of false narrative. Users are left to interpret information as they wish, and this cycle of misinformation just keeps going and being strengthened.”
The issue is even more pressing at a time when vaccine misinformation has been proliferating across social media platforms and vaccine hesitancy remains a real barrier. According to Kaiser Family Foundation data, Hispanic adults were less likely to say they would “definitely” get the vaccine than their white counterparts.
YouTube, Facebook and other tech behemoths have changed some of their internal guidelines to crack down on misinformation. In July, YouTube announced it would prioritize information from credible sources like hospitals and government organizations.
Hernandez doesn’t think it’s enough. “Having that dialogue is very important and it’s a very important first step, but there is a lot of work to do,” he said. “The only way to combat this rampant misinformation plaguing our community is to actively work against it through education, support and research.”
In the meantime, Hernandez believes directing people to credible sites can be a good first step.
“Organizations such as CreakyJoints Español and nonprofits that actively work to educate our communities are here to help,” he continued. “We ask people to refer to fact-based websites such as us and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Spanish. Being able to direct someone that doesn’t know where to go for information is invaluable.”