Social media enables the communication of information, both good and bad. It connects long lost relatives, creative collaborators and entrepreneurs, but also medical charlatans, neo-Nazis and terrorist sympathizers. Unfortunately, there seems to be no stopping the spread of bad information and misinformation online, and our ability to synthesize, analyze and scrutinize this information has not kept pace with the volume of data available. The consequence is an abundance of bullshit–fraudulent claims that probably have an increasingly important influence on how we humans understand the world.
In the fall of 2016, I worked with an undergraduate student to study the use of Facebook in the communication of Lyme disease information. He did it as part of a fourth year independent study course, and summarized the results in this report.
While it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions from his analysis, it is clear that Facebook helps facilitate the spread of misinformation about Lyme disease. The science of Lyme disease evolves as scientists get a better handle on diagnosis, symptoms and treatment. Health Canada, the CDC and WHO recommendations may change in response to the changing science, but at present, current scientific consensus is at odds with some of the information available from social media. Since there is no effective way to police social media for misinformation, many people may be misinformed about the current science on risk and treatment. This is an immediate concern for some individuals, since unnecessary treatments with antibiotics can lead to a variety of health problems. A more lasting concern is that this kind of misinformation contributes to the widespread and growing mistrust of experts and government.