Communicating official public health information about infectious diseases is complicated by the fact that individuals receive much of their information from their social contacts, either via interpersonal interaction or social media, which can be prone to bias and misconception.
This study aims to evaluate the effect of public health campaigns and the effect of socially communicated health information on learning about diseases simultaneously. Although extant literature addresses the effect of one source of information (official or social) or the other, it has not addressed the simultaneous interaction of official information (OI) and social information (SI) in an experimental setting.
We used a series of experiments that exposed participants to both OI and structured SI about the symptoms and spread of hepatitis C over a series of 10 rounds of computer-based interactions. Participants were randomly assigned to receive a high, low, or control intensity of OI and to receive accurate or inaccurate SI about the disease.
A total of 195 participants consented to participate in the study. Of these respondents, 186 had complete responses across all ten experimental rounds, which corresponds to a 4.6% (9/195) nonresponse rate. The OI high intensity treatment increases learning over the control condition for all symptom and contagion questions when individuals have lower levels of baseline knowledge (all P values ≤.04). The accurate SI condition increased learning across experimental rounds over the inaccurate condition (all P values ≤.01). We find limited evidence of an interaction between official and SI about infectious diseases.
This project demonstrates that exposure to official public health information increases individuals’ knowledge of the spread and symptoms of a disease. Socially shared information also facilitates the learning of accurate and inaccurate information, though to a lesser extent than exposure to OI. Although the effect of OI persists, preliminary results suggest that it can be degraded by persistent contradictory SI over time.

©Elias Assaf, Robert M Bond, Skyler J Cranmer, Eloise E Kaizar, Lauren Ratliff Santoro, Susumu Shikano, David J Sivakoff. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (https://www.jmir.org), 23.11.2021.