I continue to suffer from the worst cough I’ve had in recent memory, but in the spirit of keeping the plague chronicle at least limping along until my health returns (I hope by the weekend), I draw your attention to an analysis of tweets discussing the risk of Mpox among children and young people in school by Benjamin Knudsen, Tracy Beth Høeg and Vinay Prasad.
The authors looked at Twitter accounts bearing medical or public health credentials tweeting about the (basically non-existent) risk that Monkeypox posed to children between May and October 2022. Their search criteria yielded a corpus of 262 tweets from 188 different credentialed accounts, 215 or 82% of which “overstated or exaggerated the risk of [Monkey]pox to children or young people in the school setting”. A mere 47 or 18%, meanwhile, managed to provide accurate information.
Healthcare professionals and academics – precisely those people held to represent ‘The Science’ – had the least accurate assessments; journalists, simply by managing to be merely hit-or-miss, achieved far higher reliability.
What is more, tweets categorised as “inaccurate” or “exaggerated” accumulated vastly more likes, as hysterical twitterers with medical credentials have vastly more followers.
Experts, far from being impartial oracles, are in fact self-interested careerists, and we all live in the world that Eric Feigl-Ding has made. Public health gurus and social media virus understanders only have relevance when people are panicking, and exaggerating the risks that viruses pose to children is one of the simplest ways to get people to panic. It’s also, unfortunately, one of the most harmful and destructive messaging strategies anybody could imagine.