Social media platforms have become a go-to information source for the public, and a soap box for healthcare providers of all types. While this may seem to be a positive influence, the information may not be completely correct or may even be outright false. With so much data being presented in a persuasive manner, how are laypersons or even professionals able to decipher fact from opinion? What is a nurse’s role in fighting false information? Moreso, what is the nurse’s responsibility to ensure that the information they are presenting is evidence-based and factual, rather than opinion or incorrect?
Misinformation and disinformation: What’s the difference?
Let’s first talk about two concepts that are related, but different in one important aspect: misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is defined simply as inaccurate information, whereas disinformation is a deliberate spread of inaccurate information with the intent
to spread fear or invoke harm. This is an important distinction, however both types can cause impressions, opinions, and thought processes that are hard to correct and have been identified as a public health threat by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (Bautista et al., 2021).
Disinformation directly conflicts with the nurses’ tenet of “do no harm” (American Nurses’ Association [ANA], 2015). This is unethical and can result in action against one’s license in some instances. Per the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), “When nurses identify themselves by their profession, they are professionally accountable for the information they provide to the public” (NCSBN, 2021). Distortion of information, false truths, and purposeful omissions are examples of disinformation.
Misinformation is a little harder to discern. There may be unintentional omissions of information, rumors, or misinterpretations of data that lead to inaccurate information. For instance, a data point in a study that was not adequately investigated may lead to misinformation. Providing sources of evidence can help in preventing misinformation.
How can nurses combat misinformation and disinformation?
In all of these cases, evidence-based investigation can help to alleviate some of the issues. Nurses are in a unique position of trust and clinical knowledge that can help with correcting this information. Many healthcare professionals are personally and professionally motivated to correct this information, however, there have been barriers identified as well. Some include lack of positive outcome when corrections are made, time, harassment, and lack of institutional support (Bautista et al., 2021).
Nurses can help by directing the public to trustworthy online sources of information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Departments of Health. Some nurses feel more comfortable leading others to the source, whereas others may engage in conversation regarding the science and the data. Regardless of the conversation, the information should be supported by evidence. Many nurses consider themselves social media influencers, who can disseminate factual information and education and debunk false information, regardless of intent. There are outlier healthcare professionals and websites providing opinions or information not
based on evidence; efforts should be made to correct any misinformation or disinformation to prevent community harm.
Some healthcare providers feel that the correction of misinformation or disinformation is not within their scope. As nurses, we have a social and professional responsibility to provide accurate information supported by evidence to ensure a healthy population. This is championed by nursing leadership organizations such as the ANA and NCSBN, as well as international healthcare interests, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations. As nurses, we do have the power to change the way the world sees us and views modern healthcare despite outside (and sometimes) inaccurate influences.
American Nurses Association. (2015). Code of Ethics for Nurses. Retrieved from https://www.nursingworld.org/ practice-policy/nursing-excellence/ethics/code-of-ethics-for-nurses/
Bautista, J. R., Zhang, Y., & Gwizdka, J. (2021). US Physicians' and Nurses' Motivations, Barriers, and Recommendations for Correcting Health Misinformation on Social Media: Qualitative Interview Study. JMIR public health and surveillance, 7(9), e27715. https://doi.org/10.2196/27715
NCSBN. (2021). Policy Statement: Dissemination of Non-scientific and Misleading COVID-19 Information by Nurses. Retrieved from https://www.ncsbn.org/public-files/PolicyBriefDisseminationofCOVID19Info.pdf
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