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[BOGOTÁ] The Zika epidemic that spread throughout the American continent last year was accompanied by another outbreak, one of rumours and false news about the disease.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Tulane University in the United States analysed 200 posts (in English) on Facebook. They found that rumours and conspiracy theories were more popular than trustworthy information.

Using the keywords “Zika” and “virus”, the scientists searched for videos and other relevant material published over the course of a month. Two independent doctors then selected the 200 most shared posts, and determined that 12 per cent of them were misinforming the public about the virus.

“The interesting thing about this work is that doctors are studying communication phenomena; this is a good ‘symptom’.”

Dominique Brossard, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In an article published in the American Journal of Infection Control, the authors reported that while posts published by institutions such as the World Health Organization reached 43,000 page views, misleading pages that described Zika as a medical ploy or a hoax received 530,000.

“This kind of misinformation can be harmful because it strengthens existing narratives, obstructing efforts to stop the outbreak”, concluded the research group.

“The interesting thing about this work is that doctors are studying communication phenomena; this is a good ‘symptom’”, commented Dominique Brossard, professor of the Science Communication Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in an interview with SciDev.Net.

However, Brossard sees a limitation. She believes that focusing in Facebook’s public posts excludes the most important feature of the platform: the information that circulates privately between groups of friends. “This could alter the results of the study”, she added.

Carlos Daguer, adviser in communication strategies for the Minister of Health of Colombia, believes this is “unfair competition”. Daguer designed the country’s plan to face misinformation around the Zika epidemic and false rumours about the vaccination against the human papillomavirus. He says that those in charge of communication in health institutions generally feel at a disadvantage because they need to be mindful of institutional reputation when designing messages for the public, while those who spread messages without scientific rigour use rhetoric without limitations.

For him, the information released by institutions, which is technical and well designed, “usually ends up being converted into a predictable narrative prone to being missunderstood”.

The authors of the paper have highlighted the value of platforms such as Facebook for disseminating information during public health crises. Today, around 64 per cent of adults in North America get informed through the social media site.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin America and Caribbean desk