No doubt social media has been a big part of many of our lives. There has been the explosive growth of many sites, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Tik Tok over the years. Of course, the pandemic fueled this growth. There is an increased use of social media as a way to keep up with the latest in allergy. There are Facebook Live lectures with medical education. On Twitter, there are “Twitorials,” some with CME available, “Tweet Chats” in allergy, and allergy/immunology journal clubs. In 2018, I wrote a column in the College Insider entitled “Allergy Facebook Friends” and talked about the excellent closed Facebook community of allergists in private practice. I have been a member of Facebook since September 2008. It is interesting to see what family, friends, and allergy colleagues post. Unfortunately, it has become clear that there is a dark side to social media, especially with Facebook.
You may have heard of the “Facebook Papers” that were published in the Wall Street Journal from a whistleblower, Frances Haugen. This led to a hearing on Capitol Hill with severe criticism levied at Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. Many of the documents deal with Facebook’s algorithms to increase traffic to sites dealing in false information, such as posts on Holocaust denial. Very disturbingly, many of these posts are related to falsehoods around health care, and these impact us as physicians.
An issue important to all of us, vaccine hesitancy, has been made worse by Facebook. It is clear that anti-vaccine activists bombarded Facebook in order to sow doubt in the minds of the American public on the efficacy and safety of the COVID vaccines. Even though researchers at Facebook warned about all the posts with vaccine misrepresentation, especially its safety, nothing was done. In fact, about 41% of comments on Facebook published on COVID-19 vaccines in English were negative. This contributed to less uptake by the public getting the much-needed vaccine. As President Biden said this summer, the falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines on Facebook were “killing people.”
It doesn’t stop there. There have been numerous Facebook groups spreading misinformation on the use of face masks. Numerous groups on Facebook were promoting the use of ivermectin, a medication used to treat parasite infections, as a cure for COVID-19. As you may know, the FDA has released a warning that ivermectin does not work on COVID-19 and may in fact cause serious side effects. But again, Facebook has done little to remove these groups.
As the vast majority of allergists take care of children and adults, the leaked papers showed how Instagram (owned by Facebook which has been renamed Meta) had a major effect on the mental health of children, with increases in rates of anxiety and depression. Especially in teenage girls, internal data from Instagram showed it led to issues related to poor body image and self-esteem. How will this impact these children and teenagers as they become adults? What will be the long-term impact on a whole generation?
Yes, I believe in free speech, but harm to the public and our patients bothers me more.
What about the other social media sites? In my opinion, none are as unsafe as Facebook. So back to my original question: Is it time to ditch Facebook? There are some definite positives with it, but the harmful negatives outweigh the need to stay on this platform. I have dramatically cut back my use of Facebook and am finding out I really don’t need it. The other social media sites I visit and the use of the College’s DocMatter group give me all the information and interaction I need on the internet.