Social media is an important source of news for many Americans, but the health stories that are most popular may also be the least accurate, suggests a study of Facebook posts about Zika virus.
In May and June 2016, a period of heavy media coverage of the Zika virus epidemic spreading in the Americas, about four out of five popular posts on Facebook about Zika contained accurate information, researchers found. But the ones containing inaccurate information or conspiracy theories were far more popular on the social networking website.
“What was most disturbing to me was the websites or videos that are giving this misinformation are trying to take the focus completely away from the issue,” said lead author Dr. Megha Sharma, a neonatal-perinatal medicine fellow at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
Those inaccurate posts may lead people to disregard accurate information about Zika virus from organizations like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO), Sharma told Reuters Health.
In February 2016, Zika virus was actively transmitted in 30 countries, most in the Americas, according to CDC, and WHO declared the outbreak to be “of international concern.” By late May, the tally of countries with Zika transmission was up to 48.
Zika infections in pregnant women have been shown to cause microcephaly – a severe birth defect in which the head and brain are undersized – as well as other brain abnormalities. The connection between Zika and microcephaly first came to light last fall in Brazil, which has since confirmed more than 2,000 cases of microcephaly.
In adults, Zika infections have also been linked to a rare neurological syndrome known as Guillain-Barre, as well as other neurological disorders.
For the new study, Sharma and her colleagues searched Facebook over one week in late June for the words Zika and virus. They then selected the 200 most popular posts from the previous month and analyzed their content. Popularity was determined by various factors, including the number of views and shares, and number of supportive comments.