Coronavirus conspiracy theories are on the rise on social media. Should medical students respond to them?

The dilemma

A medical student contacted the MDU about their obligation to address medical conspiracy theories they came across on social media. While they've been aware of various memes regarding vaccinations and other medical treatment previously, they started to notice an increase during the pandemic. These varied from suggestions the coronavirus was manufactured and released intentionally through to more recent theories about the vaccines.

One online group they had been part of had been rife with posts about the vaccine being a way of implanting microchips or altering the recipients’ DNA. The online discussions these generated caused the medical student concern when they realised that other social media users considered this information factually accurate and well researched. As a member of the medical profession, the medical student wondered if they should counter the information with reliable sources of relevant information, if only to provide a balanced view.

GMC guidance on using social media

When offering any comments online as a medical professional, there are points to consider and the GMC’s guidance, Doctors’ use of social media is informative, even before you qualify.

Firstly, it is important even if you disagree with a view put forward by another individual online to convey this in a respectful manner. This aligns with the GMC’s guidance which states that,

"You must not bully, harass or make gratuitous, unsubstantiated or unsustainable comments about individuals online."

Secondly, if you do put forward any medical information, you should ensure it’s accurate – any opinion should be within your knowledge and expertise. You should avoid giving medical advice online.

It is also important to be aware of the expectation of identifying yourself once you are GMC registered:

17. If you identify yourself as a doctor in publicly accessible social media, you should also identify yourself by name. Any material written by authors who represent themselves as doctors is likely to be taken on trust and may reasonably be taken to represent the views of the profession more widely.

MDU advice

If you wish to, you can highlight reliable sources of information such as links to authoritative sources of public health information about COVID-19 such as the NHS. However, you should avoid straying into areas beyond your expertise.

It may also be reassuring to note that the spread of misinformation about coronavirus is a recognised issue. The government has launched a campaign against hoax stories on social media and has set up a rapid response unit to work with social media firms to remove harmful content.   

Ultimately, however, as a medical student you are not obliged to educate strangers online in the face of misinformation.

While it is understandably tempting to try to counter false information you come across online, there is the distinct possibility that you will get drawn into circular arguments and have no impact at all.

Even with the advice above, if you come across conspiracy theories online, it’s usually better to avoid reposting stories (even if you want to debunk them) or getting into a debate about them. This avoids drawing more attention to dubious content. You can report posts of concern to many social media providers.

Staying safe online

It’s worth remembering the risks associated with social media. It is widely accepted that social media is an important tool both professionally and personally and it can be used to improve patient care.

However, medical students and doctors need to be very mindful about what they post and how this may appear to others. Consider the following: 

  • Privacy pitfalls: even where privacy settings are high, screenshots can be reposted and receive a much wider audience. This can include members of the public and patients and, depending on the nature of the post, create a bad impression.
  • Professionalism: potential employers and other organisations may also review social media to find out more about an applicant’s background.
  • Duty of confidentiality: be mindful of confidentiality and ensure this is not breached. If you are using any form of social media as part of your role, follow your employer’s policy.

Read more tips on communicating online without falling foul of the rules

This page was correct at publication on 18/03/2021. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.