Addressing Antivaccine Sentiment on Public Social Media Forums Through Web-Based Conversations Based on Motivational Interviewing Techniques: Observational Study.
Health misinformation shared on social media can have negative health consequences; yet, there is a dearth of field research testing interventions to address health misinformation in real time, digitally, and in situ on social media. We describe a field study of a pilot program of "infodemiologists" trained with evidence-informed intervention techniques heavily influenced by principles of motivational interviewing. Here we provide a detailed description of the nature of infodemiologists' interventions on posts sharing misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, present an initial evaluation framework for such field research, and use available engagement metrics to quantify the impact of these in-group messengers on the web-based threads on which they are intervening. We monitored Facebook (Meta Platforms, Inc) profiles of news organizations marketing to 3 geographic regions (Newark, New Jersey; Chicago, Illinois; and central Texas). Between December 2020 and April 2021, infodemiologists intervened in 145 Facebook news posts that generated comments containing either false or misleading information about vaccines or overt antivaccine sentiment. Engagement (emojis plus replies) data were collected on Facebook news posts, the initial comment containing misinformation (level 1 comment), and the infodemiologist's reply (level 2 reply comment). A comparison-group evaluation design was used, with numbers of replies, emoji reactions, and engagements for level 1 comments compared with the median metrics of matched comments using the Wilcoxon signed rank test. Level 2 reply comments (intervention) were also benchmarked against the corresponding metric of matched reply comments (control) using the Wilcoxon signed rank test (paired at the level 1 comment level). Infodemiologists' level 2 reply comments (intervention) and matched reply comments (control) were further compared using 3 Poisson regression models. In total, 145 interventions were conducted on 132 Facebook news posts. The level 1 comments received a median of 3 replies, 3 reactions, and 7 engagements. The matched comments received a median of 1.5 (median of IQRs 3.75) engagements. Infodemiologists made 322 level 2 reply comments, precipitating 189 emoji reactions and a median of 0.5 (median of IQRs IQR 0) engagements. The matched reply comments received a median of 1 (median of IQRs 2.5) engagement. Compared to matched comments, level 1 comments received more replies, emoji reactions, and engagements. Compared to matched reply comments, level 2 reply comments received fewer and narrower ranges of replies, reactions, and engagements, except for the median comparison for replies. Overall, empathy-first communication strategies based on motivational interviewing garnered less engagement relative to matched controls. One possible explanation is that our interventions quieted contentious, misinformation-laden threads about vaccines on social media. This work reinforces research on accuracy nudges and cyberbullying interventions that also reduce engagement. More research leveraging field studies of real-time interventions is needed, yet data transparency by technology platforms will be essential to facilitate such experiments.