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How Health Professionals Respond To Online Health Rumors

Given the abundance of information on social media, society’s challenge lies not in the difficulty of accessing health information but in sieving out truths from rumors. While research has shown that laypeople could easily be misled by health hoaxes, a new research conducted by Dr. Alton YK Chua from Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, and Dr. Snehasish Banerjee from the York Management School in the University of York examined whether medical professionals fared any better.

The research sought to find out how medical professionals’ intentions to trust and share cancer-related online rumors were affected by the perceived importance of the rumors, rumor types, and the presence of rumor rebuttals.

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Perceived importance is defined as the vested interest in a given rumor. Two common rumor types are dread and wish. As their names connote, the former carries fear (e.g., drinking cold water after meals will lead to cancer) while the latter brings hope (e.g., lemons can help ward off and cure cancer). Rumor rebuttals are messages intended to call out the rumors.

In a behavioral experiment, medical professionals were exposed to a set of social media messages (rumors— dread or wish), some of which would be accompanied by counter-messages (rebuttals). None of the messages had any medical basis. For each message, the respondents had to answer a questionnaire that measured its perceived importance as well as their intentions to trust and share it. Results from a statistical analysis yielded three main findings.

First, dread rumors drew respondents’ intentions to trust and share more than wish rumors. Similar to laypeople, these medical professionals appeared to place a higher premium on dread health rumors than on wish ones.  Simply by playing up the fear factor, dread rumors tend to be embraced and propagated more easily.

Next, the presence of rebuttals reduced respondents’ intention to trust but not intention to share. In other words, for all its worth, issuing a rebuttal does not guarantee that the hoax will stop spreading. The adage “better safe than sorry” seems to hold good even for those armed with subject-matter expertise.

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Third, the respondents were generally nonchalant about health rumors on social media. Their low perceived importance was rather surprising since this was supposed to be a topic of their professional interest. Apparently, they kept online health-related messages at arm’s length, and did not see their role in debunking falsehoods. To make social media a safer space for health-information seeking laypeople, there is certainly scope for medical professionals to be more engaged since they are the best first-line defense against any medical rumor that springs up from time to time.

Going forward, this research holds a number of implications. For those interested in rumor research, a possible direction is to explore how persuasive rumor rebuttals can be crafted. The rumor rebuttals used here are two nondescript sentences: “The above message is a hoax. Please don’t spread.” To make the warning more effective, it could incorporate elements that not only expose the implausibility of the hoax but also emphasize the ills of its spread.

Another possible direction is to examine media richness in the message. For example, the use of text-only versus text-and-pictorial messages could create different impressions of perceived credibility, leading to different trusting and sharing intentions. With a better understanding of the effects of media richness, hopefully, more effective rumor mitigation strategies can be developed.

These findings are described in the article entitled Intentions to trust and share online health rumors: An experiment with medical professionals, recently published in the journal Computers in Human BehaviorThis work was conducted by Alton Y.K. Chua from Nanyang Technological University and Snehasish Banerjee from the University of York.

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