On Twitter, many users want the “blue check,” the official seal of verification given by the company that “lets people know that a public interest account is authentic.” That way, users can tell the difference between an actual politician’s account and a parody account (perhaps sometimes hard to tell these days).

Doctors are one group applying for that control, in part because during the pandemic, they have amassed a large following and influenced online conversations about Covid-19. And they often get their blue check – at least male doctors do. However, this is not true, for a good portion of female doctors, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

When it comes to verified Twitter accounts controlled by doctors, of the 779 identified study authors, 70.7 percent were male and only 29.3 percent were female.

The results raise questions about Twitter’s vetting process, and of course, who gets extra information when it comes to health messages reaching a wider audience on social media.

“I was interested in who was getting, for lack of a better term, respect or that extra kind of gold star,” said study co-author Fumiko Chino, a radiation oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. . City and a clinical researcher who is interested in health outcomes, health equity and health care disparities. Chino is verified on Twitter.

“Unlike, say, maybe a celebrity, a vetted doctor really has a bigger voice and would be trusted a little bit more than someone who wasn’t vetted.”

Get your blue check and fast track to health professionals

Twitter representatives did not respond to a request to explain their verification process. But on the company’s website, it sets out a number of categories and requirements that different individuals and companies must meet in order to be verified – including things like the account must be active, visible, and not recently created.

For “activists and organizers,” where Twitter categorizes medical professionals, the requirements say “the account reflects an individual, not an organization” and “the account’s follower count is in the top 0.05% in their region.” However, Twitter says it will vet accounts that do not meet all of its requirements on matters of high public interest, due to their expertise or public role. This includes medical professionals during epidemics.

“Social media has become part of a doctor’s professional and public profile,” write the authors of the study. “Verification validates and enhances that status and could have important implications for patient engagement and academic promotion based on digital scholarship.”

Why it matters who owns the social media space

Chino said she thinks the verification lends weight to the messages doctors give. This can be both good and bad. While people think of science as black and white, it’s actually very, very gray, Chino said.

And while vetted doctors argue online about things like wearing masks (some say you don’t need them) because they’re making decisions from various data they’ve reviewed, that could leave others vulnerable, like immunized or “at risk” individuals. .

“We haven’t done a good job of controlling the flow of information about what the different levels of risk are and how we should behave,” Chino said.

Anjana Susarla, an associate professor of artificial intelligence at Michigan State University who has done research on how people search for health care information on social media, said people searching for information typically look for trusted sources who look like them. While doctors and health care professionals may turn to the CDC for example, the average Internet user may not be well versed in reliable government sources.

“If Twitter is offering verification status to men and women in different ways, it could affect the perception of trustworthy information on Twitter,” Susarla said.

Susarla gave an example of someone seeking advice on whether to send their children back to school. Information from a pediatrician tweeting advice who is a mother may differ from that of a male pediatrician. But if the woman isn’t verified and the man is verified, that could affect how people choose to use the information they’re providing. Susarla also said the vetting process is extremely opaque.

Chino has helped co-author additional studies that explore how sexual and gender disparities cause some information to be reinforced over others. Looking at Twitter influencers in her field of radiation oncology, Chino and her co-authors found that “male academic radiation oncologists based in North America occupy particularly influential positions in virtual communities.”

That men are more likely than women to get the blue check isn’t new — older studies found the same patterns — but the latest study shows it’s an ongoing issue. Previous research has shown that, in general, men are much more likely to be verified than women.

“We’re in a liminal space right now where voices that are trying to promote a public health message are really under attack,” Chino said. “I think we have to be very careful whose voices we’re raising, because unfortunately, I feel like there’s been a real erosion of trust.”

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.

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