A new report has revealed social media algorithms are not only perpetuating false information on health issues among sceptical audiences, but are also limiting some users from accessing certain health information at all.
The research, by Grayling, found that as algorithms promote health content similar to that which users have previously engaged with, it increasingly becomes the only content they see, effectively locking people out of accurate information and into a perpetual cycle of misinformation and propaganda.
It said this type of content is also more likely to have a clickbait and emotive edge – for example using language such as "deadly" when it comes to describing new Covid-19 variants and risks “raising distrust”.
“This was especially the case on X, compared to Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn, when it comes to topics such as vaccine or conspiracy theories,” the report says.
“Users with a historically low level of interest in health issues were significantly less likely to see health information on their feeds at all.”
Jessica Brobald, managing director of Grayling Brussels, said the research highlights how more work needs to be done.
“As the Covid-19 crisis has shown us, access to neutral and verified information is more important than ever to maintain a solid foundation for public health,” she said.
“Yet, as election season nears, our report highlights that there is still much work to be done to ensure information neutrality on online platforms.”
The researchers carried out studies with three groups of people, those who were interested in their heath and trusted medical advice, those disinterested and people who were health sceptics with low trust in official organisations.
The study, Is ‘the algorithm’ making us ill?, found people who are already sceptical about health information are more likely to receive anti-vaccination and anti-medication health content than people who are more trusting of official sources, reinforcing a cycle of misinformation
It said people who are more sceptical from the outset are also more likely to receive content that is emotive or alarmist, increasing their feelings of apprehension and distrust.
The study found women, especially under 45, felt more inundated with bogus diet and exercise related content on social media platforms, whether or not they had shown interest in this type of content.
The Health Disinterested group saw very little to no healthcare content, it said, in contrast, the Health Interested and Trusting participants received official public health content, suggesting people’s search histories put them at risk of missing out on vital health information.
“All participants were, to some degree, aware of the potential for misinformation online but their approaches to vetting health content varied considerably,” it said.
“Health Interested and Trusting participants were more likely to turn to official and known media outlets for health content, while Health Sceptics were more likely to use gut instinct to judge whether a headline or article was trustworthy.
“On X, the prevalence of anti-vaccine and conspiracy theory content in search results was much higher than other platforms. Even those with high levels of trust were frequently served up pieces of far-right content or content with conspiracy theories or anti-vaccine sentiment.”
It said many social media providers are already making efforts to verify health and other content with YouTube having a dedicated channel for the creation of content by approved medical experts and Meta putting funding into fact checking and removal of potentially harmful content.
“Our research underlines the importance of taking a strategic approach when using social media to reach interested and less-interested users,” Ross Laird, director of Grayling UK, said.
“Incorporating early channel and content planning, broadening outreach and creating easily digestible content that can be widely shared across multiple channels will be key.
“Understanding how these channels prioritise content and formats, such as video and jumping on trending content to respond and reassure is now all part of the reality of modern health communications.”