One important domain, wherein the Internet plays an increasing role is health information access. Now, a study has revealed that one-sided comments posted on online news articles may influence readers’ opinions about health-related topics.
This raises questions about how health social media should be moderated, especially considering the potentially polarised nature of these forums.
In this study led by Holly Witteman from the Universite Laval, nearly 1,700 participants were asked to carefully read a mock news article on home birth. The mock article was a composite of real news articles from various US publications. Witteman said, “We took paragraphs from each source, including quotes from health care professionals who were for or against home birth in order to create a balanced news item.”
Participants who viewed balanced comments and those who read the article without comments expressed an average opinion of 52, while the average opinion for the negative comments group was 39 and the average opinion for the positive comments group was 63. Comments with personal stories increased the divide.
“However, this doesn’t mean we should shut down comment sections or attempt to suppress personal stories,” says Witteman. “If sites fail to host such discussions, they are likely to simply happen elsewhere. Although the quality of comments is sometimes debatable, social media is a valuable tool that allows people to share and find information on subjects related to their health. That kind of engagement is arguably a good thing.”
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“What’s more, sharing information can prove particularly useful when there is no consensus on the topic in the scientific community or if a person’s choice comes down to their values or personal preferences.”
Organisations that seek to communicate health information and to support discussions of that information may wish to ensure they adequately represent different viewpoints so that readers can form their own opinions, added Witteman. The study is published in Health Affairs.