When advocacy obscures accuracy online: digital pandemics of public health misinformation through an antifluoride case study

Am J Public Health. 2015 Mar;105(3):517-23. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2014.302437. Epub 2015 Jan 20.


Objectives: In an antifluoridation case study, we explored digital pandemics and the social spread of scientifically inaccurate health information across the Web, and we considered the potential health effects.

Methods: Using the social networking site Facebook and the open source applications Netvizz and Gephi, we analyzed the connectedness of antifluoride networks as a measure of social influence, the social diffusion of information based on conversations about a sample scientific publication as a measure of spread, and the engagement and sentiment about the publication as a measure of attitudes and behaviors.

Results: Our study sample was significantly more connected than was the social networking site overall (P<.001). Social diffusion was evident; users were forced to navigate multiple pages or never reached the sample publication being discussed 60% and 12% of the time, respectively. Users had a 1 in 2 chance of encountering negative and nonempirical content about fluoride unrelated to the sample publication.

Conclusions: Network sociology may be as influential as the information content and scientific validity of a particular health topic discussed using social media. Public health must employ social strategies for improved communication management.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Consumer Advocacy*
  • Fluoridation / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Internet / organization & administration
  • Internet / statistics & numerical data*
  • Internet / trends
  • Organizational Case Studies
  • Social Media / organization & administration
  • Social Media / statistics & numerical data*
  • Social Media / trends
  • United States