The Challenge of Debunking Health Misinformation in Dynamic Social Media Conversations: Online Randomized Study of Public Masking During COVID-19


The spread of false and misleading health information on social media can cause individual and social harm. Research on debunking has shown that properly designed corrections can mitigate the impact of misinformation, but little is known about the impact of correction in the context of prolonged social media debates. For example, when a social media user takes to Facebook to make a false claim about a health-related practice and a health expert subsequently refutes the claim, the conversation rarely ends there. Often, the social media user proceeds by rebuking the critic and doubling down on the claim. Objective. The aim of this study was to examine the impact of such extended back and forth between false claims and debunking attempts on observers’ dispositions toward behavior that science favors. We tested competing predictions about the effect of extended exposure on people’s attitudes and intentions toward masking in public during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and explored several psychological processes potentially underlying this effect. Methods. A total of 500 US residents took part in an online experiment in October 2020. They reported on their attitudes and intentions toward wearing masks in public. They were then randomly assigned to one of four social media exposure conditions (misinformation only vs misinformation+correction vs misinformation+correction+rebuke vs misinformation+correction+rebuke+second correction), and reported their attitudes and intentions for a second time. They also indicated whether they would consider sharing the thread if they were to see it on social media and answered questions on potential mediators and covariates. Results. Exposure to misinformation had a negative impact on attitudes and intentions toward masking (beta=–.35, 95% CI –.42 to –.29; P<.001). Moreover, initial debunking of a false claim generally improved attitudes and intentions toward masking (beta=.35, 95% CI .16 to .54; P<.001). However, this improvement was washed out by further exposure to false claims and debunking attempts (beta=–.53, 95% CI –.72 to –.34; P<.001). The latter result is partially explained by a decrease in the perceived objectivity of truth. That is, extended exposure to false claims and debunking attempts appear to weaken the belief that there is an objectively correct answer to how people ought to behave in this situation, which in turn leads to less positive reactions toward masking as the prescribed behavior. Conclusions. Health professionals and science advocates face an underappreciated challenge in attempting to debunk misinformation on social media. Although engaging in extended debates with science deniers and other purveyors of bunk appears necessary, more research is needed to address the unintended consequences of such engagement.

Journal of Medical Internet Research
Mehdi Mourali
Mehdi Mourali
Associate Professor of Marketing