Doctoral student Silvia Sommariva examines spread of ‘fake news’ on social media

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Can misinformation hinder disease prevention efforts? USF College of Public Health doctoral student Silvia Sommariva’s research findings suggest so.

She examined the spread of health rumors on social networking sites, an issue she said is a major concern for those working on the front lines of health.

“I think a lot of the work we do in public health can be undermined by the spread of false information,” Sommariva said. “There is an ongoing conversation on verification and correction on social media within other fields of research and I think public health educators have a lot to contribute to this.”

Silvia Sommariva. (Photo by Caitlin Keough)

Her research, “Spreading the (Fake) News: Exploring Health Messages on Social Media and the Implications for Health Professionals Using a Case Study,” has been published in American Journal of Health Education.

Sommariva explored the spread of health rumors and verified information on social networking using the Zika virus as a case study.

“Our goal was to inform the debate around what role health educators and promoters should play when it comes to optimizing the use of these platforms to communicate relevant public health information,” she said. “As a former political fact-checker, I am very interested in misinformation in general and the implications of this phenomenon that has been given the name of ‘fake news.’”

Sommariva conducted a content analysis of Zika-related news stories shared on social networking sites from Feb. 2016 to Jan. 2017, examining the content for accuracy, volume of shares and words used in the headline.

She found rumors had three times more shares than verified stories, with popular rumors portraying Zika as a conspiracy against the public and a low-risk used in connection to pesticides.

“This is a huge problem because it means that, in a moment when people are worried and looking for answers on an emergent public health threat, a lot of what they see is inaccurate,” she said. “For instance, several articles we analyzed downplayed the possible risks of Zika. A person reading that type of information may then decide not to wear mosquito repellent because they don’t think they can be adversely affected by the virus.”

Her work, co-authored with Dr. Cheryl Vamos, Alexios Mantzarlis, Lillie Uyên-Loan Đào, and Dinorah Martinez Tyson, was recognized at the Annual Chiles Lecture and Symposium where she was presented with the Charles Mahan MCH Best Student Paper Award.

“I want to continue to use social media as research settings. Even though there is an increasing amount of studies in the field, there is still a lot of unexplored potential there for public health researchers,” she said.

Sommariva said she hopes the research will start much needed conversation regarding public health and misinformation.

“Public health institutions are already doing a lot of great work to inform the public in situations of emergency like Zika,” she said. “Engaging social media in a coordinated strategy to limit the reach of misinformation, particularly on time-sensitive issues such as epidemics, is key going forward. I hope this article will encourage health educators to bring their expertise to the partnerships that already exist between fact-checkers and social media platforms like Facebook.”

Related media:
Zika rumors got three times more shares than real Zika stories. What can health educators do?

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health