X's crowdsourced tool to counter COVID untruths mainly accurate, credible, researchers say

Confused by social media post

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Community Notes, a crowdsourced COVID-19 vaccine misinformation countermeasure on X (formerly Twitter), generally corrected false posts accurately and pointed readers to more credible sources, according to researchers who evaluated the posts.

The University of California at San Diego (UCSD)-led team assessed the accuracy and credibility of a random sample of 205 Community Notes on COVID-19 vaccines from the year after the tool's December 2022 launch. The reviewers included an infectious-disease doctor and a virologist. The results were published last week in JAMA.

For the open-sourced Community Notes, anonymous, ideologically diverse volunteers independently flag posts containing erroneous COVID-19 and vaccine information and suggest corrections, or "notes." Notes labeled as helpful by contributors who disagreed on previous notes are shown alongside the original posts. The process is public rather than company-controlled.

"Social media can magnify health misinformation, especially about vaccination," the study authors noted. "Platform countermeasures have included censoring, shadowbanning (limiting distribution without disclosure), and adding warning labels to problematic content. Yet, evaluating these countermeasures is challenging due to restrictive public disclosures about their inner workings." 

93% cited high- or moderate-quality sources

A total of 1.4% of the 45,783 notes mentioned COVID-19 vaccines. Monthly note rates rose from 22 to 186 over the study period. Of the randomly sampled notes, there was strong agreement on note topics (90%), source credibility (87%), and accuracy (96%) before disagreements were resolved.

The most common note topic was adverse events (51%), followed by conspiracy theories (37%), vaccine recommendations (7%), and vaccine effectiveness (5%). Nearly all (97%) of the notes were accurate, 2% were partially accurate, and 0.5% were inaccurate. 

Of all notes, 49% cited high-credibility sources (eg, peer-reviewed studies), while 44% were of moderate credibility (eg, news stories, fact-checking sites), and 7% were of low credibility (eg, blogs, tabloids). Views of the 189 posts with view data totaled 201 million (average, 1 million).

Alternative to censoring

"Since the World Health Organization declared an 'infodemic' of misinformation, there have been surprisingly few achievements to celebrate," senior author John Ayers, PhD, of UCSD, said in a university news release. "X's Community Notes have emerged as an innovative solution, pushing back with accurate and credible health information."

By providing context and credible sources alongside contentious posts, the platform empowers users to discern fact from fiction, a skill they will find useful as they navigate all claims.

Eric Leas, PhD, MPH

Coauthor Eric Leas, PhD, MPH, of UCSD, said that Community Notes offers an alternative to censoring. "Community Notes fosters a learning environment where users can glean insights from corrections to misinformation to prevent similar misunderstandings in the future," he said in the release. "By providing context and credible sources alongside contentious posts, the platform empowers users to discern fact from fiction, a skill they will find useful as they navigate all claims."

Coauthor Mark Dredze, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University, said the study offers practical insights into social media strategies that may promote public health. "Although we couldn’t examine how these notes directly influenced people's beliefs or actions, the characteristics we analyzed have consistently been shown to predict a message's effectiveness," he said.

The researchers urged other social media platforms to open-source their misinformation countermeasures for study by independent scientists to scale the most effective strategies and foster public trust in them.

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