CHICAGO — With the spread of disinformation continuing to negatively impact efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and sowing distrust in vaccines, public health mitigation efforts and U.S. health institutions, the American Medical Association (AMA) today adopted policy during the Annual Meeting of its House of Delegates to address health-related disinformation spread by health professionals. As part of a report developed by the AMA Board of Trustees, the new policy provides a comprehensive strategy aimed at stopping the spread of disinformation and protecting the health of the public, including actions that can be taken by the AMA, social medial companies, publishers, state licensing bodies, credentialing boards, state and specialty health professional societies, and by those who accredit continuing education.
The report outlines how disinformation claims made by health professionals can be directly linked to topics such as the promotion of unproven COVID-19 treatments, false claims of vaccine side effects, and public health guidance that is not evidence-based. While disinformation by health professionals has spread rampantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, the report cites a Center for Countering Digital Hate study that found nearly two-thirds of the anti-vaccine social media posts—or more than 812,000 individual posts—could be traced back to a mere twelve individuals, nicknamed the “Disinformation Dozen.” Given that financial gain can often be the reason for spreading disinformation, the report notes the need to address both the person’s ability to find an audience to deceive and their ability to benefit financially from that audience.
“Physicians are a trusted source of information for patients and the public alike, but the spread of disinformation by a few has implications for the entire profession and causes harm. Physicians have an ethical and professional responsibility to share truthful information, correct misleading and inaccurate information, and direct people to reliable sources of health information,” said AMA President Gerald E. Harmon, M.D. “The AMA is committed to confronting disinformation, and we need to address the root of the problem. We must ensure that health professionals spreading disinformation aren’t able to use far-reaching platforms, often benefitting them financially, to disseminate dangerous health claims. While we are unlikely to undo the harms caused by disinformation campaigns during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can act now to help prevent the spread of disinformation in the future.”
Expanding upon AMA’s existing efforts to address disinformation, the new policy calls for the AMA to work with health professional societies and other relevant organizations to implement a comprehensive strategy that includes the following priorities:
- Maintain AMA as a trusted source of evidence-based information for physicians and patients,
- Ensure evidence-based medical and public health information is accessible by engaging with publishers, research institutions and media organizations to develop best practices around paywalls and preprints to improve access to evidence-based information and analysis,
- Address disinformation disseminated by health professionals via social media platforms and address the monetization of spreading disinformation on social media platforms,
- Educate health professionals and the public on how to recognize disinformation as well as how it spreads,
- Consider the role of health professional societies in serving as appropriate fact-checking entities for health-related information disseminated by various media platforms,
- Encourage continuing education to be available for health professionals who serve as fact-checker to help prevent the dissemination of health-related disinformation,
- Ensure licensing boards have the authority to take disciplinary action against health professionals for spreading health-related disinformation and affirms that all speech in which a health professional is utilizing their credentials is professional conduct and can be scrutinized by their licensing entity,
- Ensure specialty boards have the authority to take action against board certification for health professionals spreading health-related disinformation, and
- Encourage state and local medical societies to engage in dispelling disinformation in their jurisdictions.
The new report provides an overview of the ways that disinformation is disseminated by health professionals, particularly through social media platforms. While the report notes that disinformation existed long before the internet and social media became commonplace, social media platforms have acted as a multiplier of disinformation spread—especially fueling the prevalence of disinformation about COVID-19. The report concludes that combating disinformation spread by health professionals, particularly over social media, will require a three-pronged approach: deprioritizing disinformation in social media algorithms, affirming and empowering the role of reactive fact-checking, and addressing any underlying incentive structure for health professionals spreading health-related disinformation.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the AMA has led numerous efforts to bolster vaccine confidence, advocate for science and confront disinformation and misinformation, including urging the CEOs of six leading social media and e-commerce companies to remain vigilant against the proliferation of both purposeful disinformation and unintentional misinformation on their platforms. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the AMA has provided physicians with up-to-date information about COVID-19 news, research, vaccines and therapeutics through its online COVID-19 resource center. The AMA will continue to leverage its communications channels and network to provide physicians with the most relevant, fact-based information and resources to share with their patients and continue to support policies to combat the further spread of health misinformation and disinformation.