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When Fake News Causes Real Suffering

When Fake News Causes Real Suffering

The growing influence of social media alongside a shift in how people obtain and consume news has led to the rapid spread of misinformation about the origins of the COVID-19 virus. What impact will this have on public health and the acceptance of a vaccine?

M

isinformation is not a new phenomenon — especially when it comes to infectious disease, vaccination and public health. The roots of the anti-vaccination movement can be traced back to the 18th Century, when smallpox inoculations were outlawed after being blamed for a severe outbreak of the disease in Paris.1 Thankfully, vaccination techniques have since improved, and the public health case for widespread vaccination has become stronger, better understood and more widely accepted.

However, the anti-vaccination movement persists, and is having a significant effect on public health. In 1998, for example, British physician Andrew Wakefield authored a study published in The Lancet claiming to identify a link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and the onset of symptoms of autism. The Wakefield study was eventually debunked, found to be fraudulent and revoked entirely2 — but the damage was done. The study received widespread publicity at the time and was blamed for contributing to a sharp fall in MMR vaccination coverage rates and a resurgence of the disease in Western countries.3

In more recent years, and despite significant pro-vaccine efforts by health practitioners and policy makers, the false link between the MMR vaccine and autism identified in the Wakefield study lives on. In fact, it has found a new lease of life: through social media. Posts spreading misinformation continue to pervade online discussions to this day, fueled by content created and shared by ordinary individuals, celebrities, politicians and organizations interested in propagating the myth.

Is this just harmless discussion, or does it have a real effect on public health? And what implications might this have for the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic?

Measuring Misinformation

To truly assess the effect of misinformation, one must be able to measure it first. The FTI Consulting team used the MMR vaccine and measles as a “test case” to demonstrate how machine learning and statistical analysis could be combined to first sift through Tweets in order to identify fake news, and to then isolate and measure the scale of its impact.

The team focused on the spread of misinformation through Twitter because that it is one of the most popular social networking platforms, and because Twitter makes its data publicly available for detailed analysis.4 The FTI Consulting team used machine learning techniques to sift through thousands of Tweets related to the MMR vaccine in order to identifying ones which contained misinformation.
They found a general increase in misinformation over time, but with ‘surges’ around particular events – such as Donald Trump linking vaccination and autism during a Presidential candidate debate in late 20155 or actor Robert De Niro appearing on television to debate the vaccine-autism link in early 2016.6

Published October 2020

© Copyright 2020. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of FTI Consulting, Inc. or its other professionals.

About The Authors


Dr. Meloria Meschi
meloria.meschi@fticonsulting.com
Senior Managing Director
Economic & Financial Consulting
FTI Consulting

Ravi Kanabar
ravi.kanabar@fticonsulting.com
Senior Director
Economic & Financial Consulting
FTI Consulting

David Eastwood
david.eastwood@fticonsulting.com
Senior Managing Director
Economic & Financial Consulting
FTI Consulting

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Economic Consulting
The Economic Consulting practice at FTI Consulting provides sophisticated and comprehensible analyses of complex economic, financial and accounting issues. We provide critical insight and expert testimony in legal and regulatory proceedings, and expertise in antitrust issues, mergers and acquisitions, securities litigation and risk management, valuation and international arbitration.
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The views expressed in this article(s) are those of the author and not necessarily those of FTI Consulting, Inc., or its professionals.
©Copyright, FTI Consulting, Inc., 2012. All rights reserved.

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