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In Search of Evidence in the Era of Social Media Misinformation

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Social media forums have long been subject to a variety of criticism related to trustworthiness, reliability, and commercialization of content. However, in recent years the spread of misinformation has been steadily increasing in disproportionate amounts as compared to the objective consumption of evidence. Facebook, for example, has long been criticized, for the ease with which its members can actively promote and rampantly encourage the spread of misinformation on its platform.

To illustrate, one study found that “from August 2020 to January 2021, misinformation got six times more clicks on Facebook than posts containing factual news. Misinformation also accounted for the vast majority of engagement with far-right posts — 68% — compared to 36% of posts coming from the far-left.” Facebook has even admitted in the past that its platform is actually hardwired for misinformation. Nowhere is it easier to spread misinformation than in Facebook groups. In contrast to someone’s personal account, a dubious claim made even in a relatively small group has a far wider audience than a claim made from one’s personal account. In the words of Nina Jankowicz, the disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, “Facebook groups are ripe targets for bad actors, for people who want to spread misleading, wrong or dangerous information.

Speech pathology, special education, and healthcare-related Facebook groups are no different. Over the past decade, thousands of them have sprung up with a focus on various skills, subspecialty areas, as well as special interests. While variety is great, things can easily take a sinister turn when specific individuals in particular groups intentionally and deliberately spread misinformation, consciously aimed at misleading or inciting others towards making violent, unethical, or deeply unprofessional decisions that can have far-reaching ramifications for both the accusers as well as the accused.

Today, I wanted to offer some evidence-based suggestions on how Facebook members in a variety of speech pathology, special education, as well as healthcare groups, can spot problematic groupthink behavior which leads to the spread and proliferation of toxic posts and comments.

Why am I writing it? Because research shows that negativity has a high physical and mental cost. Poorly managed emotions can create chronic stress, which in turn depletes us of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins, and damages our immune system. Chronic stress can actually decrease our life span and result in the shortening of our telomeres, the “end caps” of our DNA strands, which can cause us to age more rapidly. Poorly managed hostility is also related to many health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive disorders, or even infections.

Here are some recommendations on how to spot posts and comments aimed at discouraging verbal reasoning (e.g., requests for tangible proof and facts), and encouraging negativity and stress in the form of emotionally charged accusations and threats against people and organizations in a variety of online forums and public spaces.

The insight into the group dynamics begins even before one joins a group. What questions are the individuals asked to answer and what group rules do they need to agree with? This part is crucially important. If you disagree with either the questions or the group rules, then it’s perfectly acceptable and even strongly recommended that you withdraw from the group and find another group better suited to your needs. There are some questions and group descriptions that by far not all members may be comfortable with. These include questions regarding political affiliations, descriptions asking not to request evidence, or slanted opinions in group descriptions (e.g., “It is ignorant of the field of speech-language pathology to believe that…”), just to mention a few.

Some groups ask general questions but set specific rules. For example, in some groups, only the group administrator can post, and group members can only comment. Many of the bigger groups (>45K members) have many very specific rules. The SLPs for Evidence-Based Practice group for example, which I co-admin with another SLP has 10 highly-specific rules that members have to follow. When joining the group, newcomers automatically agree to abide by these rules, as well as respect the consequence of breaking these rules.

Therein lies the power of free choice. When a particular private online space is not to someone’s liking, those individuals have the power to leave that space and join another private space better suited to their needs. However, things are never that straightforward. Discord ensues when certain individuals join private spaces run by others and then begin to pursue their own agenda in the form of posts and comments, which may break the group rules, and are subject to deletion or even member’s group removal (depending on the offense in question).

So how does one effectively recognize when the groups one joins and participates in are truly suitable to one’s professional needs? Here are some practical suggestions. Start by scrolling through the announcements, posts, files, and photos of the group. Are you readily finding evidence-based content suitable to your practice? 

What is the quality of discussions being held in the group? Are they objective or subjective in nature? Are the  discussions focused on constructively criticizing, reviewing, and analyzing specific  methods and approaches or are they aimed at criticizing specific individuals?

Do the group administrators and members encourage critical thinking and independent thought or are you being offered content which has already been interpreted for you by someone with a rationalization that it will make your busy professional life easier? 

Are there any group discussions that heavily focus on personal attacks, specific accusations, and/or abusive name-calling? Is there factual and tangible strong (vs. irrelevant or circumstantial) evidence provided to support made claims or do the discussions focus on emotionally charged accusations with vague references to (e.g., screenshots) but a complete absence of provided irrefutable evidence?

How many discussions of such nature are there in the group? Are there 1 or 2 only, do they repeat periodically every few months, or are most of the group’s posts reflective of discussions of similar nature? Are there particular individuals who are constantly starting and fueling these discussions? How do they react when requests for evidence are made or when someone attempts to contradict their claims? Do they respond in a thoughtful and objective manner? Or do they present themselves as victims, and/or immediately go on offense in the rationalizations of their posts/comments?

Is the aim of some of  these group discussions and posts to strategically incite others to cancel particular individuals or groups under the guise of combating their so-called censorship, monopoly, biased practices, or financial self-aggrandizing? What about the individuals who are strategically facilitating and fueling the “flames” of these discussions? Is there compelling evidence of true selfless activism to “better one’s field” or do they have vested personal and or professional gain and benefit in ensuring that these discussions continue to fan the flames of discord and disparage specific individuals or organizations?

Inflammatory posts and threads aside, what is the overall quality of the group in question? Is the group replete with helpful free or paid resources or is there very little substance present on other discussion threads? What about the subjects of their inflammatory discussions? Have you attempted to investigate the veracity of these claims, or have you decided that if a number of people are repeating the same information about an individual, then it’s good enough for you and the accused must be automatically guilty?   

The fact is, that misinformation has a tendency of going viral because it’s so much easier to share and comment on”juicy” group posts than to actually objectively read, much less, evaluate them.

A simple exercise with how this post will be received if it is shared in various groups should allow you to judge. Will it be discussed based on its content or will the discussions be aimed at its author?

So what can group members do to become objective group consumers to avoid misinformation?

  1. Vet the poster’s credibility. Who is making the accusations and do they themselves have vested interests which are conveniently being ignored? Do their accusations stand up to careful scrutiny? Would their evidence stand up in court?
  2. What is the quality of their posts and comments? Is it steeped in polite language and objectivity, and backed by science, research, and facts, or is it full of emotional language including but not limited to the use of ALL CAPS, dramatic punctuation, claims of victimhood, threats, vicious attacks, and name-calling?
  3. What are the factual sources being used to substantiate accusatory claims? Is the same information being reliably shared by reputable entities in other reputable groups, or is it being shared by select individuals or their followers, all of whom have clear and tangible connections to one another (eg., administrators of the same group; identical cross-posts by the same individuals in select groups, etc.)
  4. Can you independently confirm the veracity of shared information by looking at the extended pattern of behavior of the accused individuals or organizations in question? For example, if accused of financial gain, do they have a tendency to consistently and exclusively advertise for-profit materials, or have they been observed to consistently disseminate free content?
  5. Avoid confirmation bias or only accept information that confirms your beliefs and dismisses information that does not. Instead, think critically and ask yourself, “Why was this written in the group? Is it to persuade me of a certain viewpoint? Is it indirectly selling me a particular product or service? Am I being triggered?” Ultimately, consider the reasons why a particular poster is sharing this information with you at this time?
  6. Do the claims pass The CRAAP Test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose)
  7. Finally, be the voice of reason to ask relevant questions and stop the spread of misinformation

At this juncture, you are probably expecting me to recommend which groups to join and which to avoid but I am not going to do that.  The aim of this post is to have you be the critical consumer of information on social media forums. As such, it would be highly counterproductive and unethical of me to tell you which groups to join and which to avoid.  Use your critical thinking skills to draw your own conclusions, and if you happen to join any of the groups co-administered by myself and my colleagues, please know that you are always welcome…as long as you follow the group rules. 

Financial Disclosure: Tatyana Elleseff MA CCC-SLP is the owner of Smart Speech Therapy LLC and Tatyana Elleseff Consulting Company, as well as the co-owner of the CEU SmartHub through which she draws remuneration for evaluations, therapy, consultations, webinars, as well as course content creation and organization.

Non-Financial Disclosure: Tatyana is the co-administrator of the following Facebook Groups: SLPs for Evidence Based Practice, School-Based SLPs: For Professionals Only!, Speech Pathologists at Large, as well as the sole administrator of the Bilingual Speech Language Pathologists Facebook group in which she volunteers her time to disseminate free evidence-based resources and information.

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