Misinformation on Twitter adversely affects adults’ health decisions

Adult smokers in the United Kingdom and the United States who were considering using e-cigarettes to help them quit were deterred when exposed to tweets falsely implying the devices are more harmful than conventional cigarettes, finds new research. The study, titled “Effects of Brief Exposure to Misinformation about E-cigarette Harms on Twitter: A Randomised Controlled Experiment” is published in BMJ Open. It is led by researchers at the University of Bristol (UK) and the Annenberg School for Communication (ASC), and is the first to examine the effect of this type of exposure which has important implications for public health.

Smart phone with Twitter logo in front of a blurry computer screen in the background.

While existing studies have examined current perceptions of e-cigarette harms, little is known about the role of exposure to misinformation on social media on these perceptions, and consequently on e-cigarette intentions and use.

In this Cancer Research UK (CRUK)-funded study, researchers from Bristol’s medical school and ASC recruited 2,400 adult smokers from the U.S. and UK who were not currently using e-cigarettes to take part in an online randomized controlled experiment to assess the effect of exposure to misinformation about e-cigarette harms on Twitter on adult current smokers’ intention to quit smoking cigarettes. They also assessed their intention to purchase e-cigarettes and their perceived relative harm of e-cigarettes compared to regular cigarettes.

Participants were shown different types of health-related information and asked for their opinions about e-cigarettes, and were asked questions on their intention to quit smoking, intention to purchase e-cigarettes, and perceived relative harm of e-cigarettes compared to regular cigarettes. After randomization, they were asked to view one tweet at a time in random order (four tweets in total) and were asked brief questions about each tweet, in terms of the perceived effectiveness of the tweet; likelihood of replying, retweeting, liking, and sharing the tweet; and their emotional response to the tweet.

Results showed that adult current smokers in both the U.S. and the UK. were deterred from considering using e-cigarettes even after brief exposure to tweets that e-cigarettes are as or more harmful than smoking, suggesting that misinformation about e-cigarette harms may adversely influence adult smokers’ decisions to consider using e-cigarettes as a way of stopping smoking. Conversely, the results found that U.S. adult current smokers may be encouraged to use e-cigarettes and view them as less harmful than regular cigarettes, after exposure to tweets that e-cigarettes are completely harmless.

Read more at the Annenberg School for Communication.