Abstract [from journal]
Despite substantial investments in public health campaigns, misunderstanding of health-related scientific information is pervasive. This is especially true in the case of tobacco use, where smokers have been found to systematically misperceive scientific information about the negative health effects of smoking, in some cases leading smokers to increase their pro-smoking bias. Here, we extend recent work on 'networked collective intelligence' by testing the hypothesis that allowing smokers and nonsmokers to collaboratively evaluate anti-smoking advertisements in online social networks can improve their ability to accurately assess the negative health effects of tobacco use. Using Amazon's Mechanical Turk, we conducted an online experiment where smokers and nonsmokers (N = 1600) were exposed to anti-smoking advertisements and asked to estimate the negative health effects of tobacco use, either on their own or in the presence of peer influence in a social network. Contrary to popular predictions, we find that both smokers and nonsmokers were surprisingly inaccurate at interpreting anti-smoking messages, and their errors persisted if they continued to interpret these messages on their own. However, smokers and nonsmokers significantly improved in their ability to accurately interpret anti-smoking messages by sharing their opinions in structured online social networks. Specifically, subjects in social networks reduced the error of their risk estimates by over 10 times more than subjects who revised solely based on individual reflection (p < 0.001, 10 experimental trials in total). These results suggest that social media networks may be used to activate social learning that improves the public's ability to accurately interpret vital public health information.