Background: Social media has become an increasingly important tool in monitoring the onset and spread of infectious diseases globally as well monitoring the spread of information about those diseases. This includes the spread of misinformation, which has been documented within the context of the emerging COVID-19 crisis. Understanding the creation, spread and uptake of social media misinformation is of critical importance to public safety. In this descriptive study, we detail Twitter activity regarding spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) and claims it increases, or “boosts”, immunity. Spinal manipulation is a common intervention used by many health professions, most commonly by chiropractors. There is no clinical evidence that SMT improves human immunity.
Methods: Social media searching software (Talkwalker Quick Search) was used to describe Twitter activity regarding SMT and improving or boosting immunity. Searches were performed for the 3 months and 12 months before March 31, 2020 using terms related to 1) SMT, 2) the professions that most often provide SMT and 3) immunity. From these searches, we determined the magnitude and time course of Twitter activity then coded this activity into content that promoted or refuted a SMT/immunity link. Content themes, high-influence users and user demographics were then stratified as either promoting or refuting this linkage.
Results:Twitter misinformation regarding a SMT/immunity link increased dramatically during the onset of the COVID crisis. Activity levels (number of tweets) and engagement scores (likes + retweets) were roughly equal between content promoting or refuting a SMT/immunity link, however, the potential reach (audience) of tweets refuting a SMT/immunity link was 3 times higher than those promoting a link. Users with the greatest influence on Twitter, as either promoters or refuters, were individuals, not institutions or organizations. The majority of tweets promoting a SMT/immunity link were generated in the USA while the majority of refuting tweets originated from Canada.
Conclusion: Twitter activity about SMT and immunity increased during the COVID-19 crisis. Results from this work have the potential to help policy makers and others understand the impact of SMT misinformation and devise strategies to mitigate its impact.
Author keywords: Social media — Twitter — Spinal manipulation — Chiropractic — Misinformation — Immunity
Author affiliations: GK: Department of Physical Therapy, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; JH, SH: Department of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark; JH: Nordic Institute of Chiropractic and Clinical Biomechanics, Odense, Denmark; CG: Medical Research Unit, Spinecentre of Southern Denmark, University Hospital of Southern Denmark, Middelfart, Denmark; CG: Department of Regional Health Research, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark; LN: Department of Chiropractic Medicine, Balgrist University Hospital, University of Zurich, Zürich, Switzerland
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