Why community engagement matters

Everyone who uses social media has heard it before: “Don’t read the comments.” Comment sections on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit, among many other platforms, are notorious for enabling vicious arguments and disseminating misinformation. Comment threads can grow like wildfire and it can seem impossible to differentiate between genuine users looking for actual discussion and trolls.

Despite the stress that often comes with reading comment sections, it is more important than ever for social media managers of health-related institutions to venture into the comment sections of their posts and engage with the right users. This point is emphasized by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a study summary by the Institute for Public Relations Behavioral Insights Research Center, “people reduce their belief in misinformation after seeing others being corrected on social media by expert sources, like well-respected government organizations.” Further, “engaging in refutations of misinformation on social media does not appear to negatively impact reputation” for the organizations who choose to reply.

UF Health used this research to guide social media strategy in 2020 and 2021. If any COVID-19 misinformation was shared in a UF Health post’s comment section, the UF Health social media coordinator responded with the correct communication, without using a condescending tone or negative language.

A conversation between a Facebook user and UF Health
A conversation between a Facebook user and UF Health

The screenshot below shows a variety of questions that didn’t include misinformation, but were important to address. If the social media manager had ignored the comment section altogether because of some negativity or in fear of backlash, the users with genuine questions would have been ignored. When a social media manager responds to a comment, they are indirectly responding to all of the commenters on the thread and anyone who may see the post in the future by engaging in the conversation. As mentioned previously, people reduce their belief in misinformation after seeing others being corrected by experts, so seeing factual data coming from UF Health will impact many — not just one user.

A conversation between a Facebook user and UF Health

It’s important to recognize when to engage and when not to engage. For example, if someone has a digital history of verbally abusing your department or organization, it might be best to avoid engaging. Use this as a guideline:

  • If you can respond with guidance and direction to resolve their problem or correct misinformation, and the content does not relate to patient-protected information, go ahead and respond.
  • If the content contains vulgar language, implies violence or harm, or is libelous to a UF or UF Health employee, you retain the right to remove those posts from your social media channel. Please take a screenshot of the post before removal and send it to the UF Health social media team and your supervisor so it can be retained for archival and reporting purposes.

Providing accurate information doesn’t just help the users. By following and reporting on trends of misinformation in its comment sections, UF Health developed a strong idea of what accurate information needed to be reiterated through organic campaigns or paid ads. For example, UF Health’s communications team found that users thought they were fully protected from COVID-19 if they contracted the virus. A multi-week digital push on social media was launched to reiterate that only a small fraction of natural antibodies will protect you from getting reinfected and seriously ill, so getting the vaccine is still recommended.

Almost one year after the COVID-19 vaccine became available for the public, this comment still appears on Facebook regularly, but many users have been exposed to the accurate information because of UF Health’s posts.

Comment sections on social media can be daunting to tackle, but responding to false claims and discourse will help stop misinformation in its tracks and highlight your department or organization’s expertise on the specific health topic.

If you receive a negative post or come across a situation that you would like some guidance on how to navigate, please send us an email. We’ll be glad to assist and walk you through the next steps.