Study: How Extremist Groups Are Spreading Health Misinformation to Parents Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Parenting communities on Facebook were subject to rampant misinformation early on in the COVID-19 pandemic; misinformation that drove them closer to extremist groups, according to a new study published by researchers from George Washington University.

While previous research has demonstrated that social media platforms are often catalysts of misinformation, the mechanism of such misinformation remains unclear. Researchers of this study sought to elucidate how Facebook helps facilitate and promote misinformation through their various online communities.

To conduct this study, Neil Johnson, a professor of physics at GW, and colleagues, analyzed Facebook communities (with over 100 million users in total) that became ensnarled in online health debate through 2020. After identifying one community, they sought to find a second strongly associated with the original, and so on, to better understand how the groups interact.

Conduits of Misinformation

According to the results, mainstream parenting communities were exposed to misinformation via two different sources within Facebook. First, the researchers noted, during 2020, alternative health communities, which generally focus on positive messaging about a healthy immune system, became a link between mainstream parenting communities and pre-COVID conspiracy theory communities that promote misinformation about topics such as climate change, fluoride, chemtrails, and 5G. This conduit augmented the bond between these communities, and enabled the proliferation of misinformation.

Second, the researchers found that a core of tightly bonded, yet largely under-the-radar, anti-vaccination communities, which were found adjacent to the mainstream parenting communities, fed COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation to the parenting communities. Moreover, the investigators further noted, neither the alternative health communities nor the anti-vaccination communities were particularly large groups by Facebook’s standards, meaning they could still be flying under the radar of moderators.

“By studying social media at an unprecedented scale, we have uncovered why mainstream communities such as parents have become flooded with misinformation during the pandemic, and where it comes from,” Prof. Johnson said via a GW press release. “Our study reveals the machinery of how online misinformation ‘ticks’ and suggests a completely new strategy for stopping it, one that could ultimately help public health efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.”

 

“Our results call into question any moderation approaches that focus on the largest and hence seemingly most visible communities, as opposed to the smaller ones that are better embedded,” Prof. Johnson added. “Clearly, combatting online conspiracy theories and misinformation cannot be achieved without considering these multi-community sources and conduits.”