The spread of medical misinformation online is a major public health threat — in the time of COVID-19, it has seriously impeded efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. And while we all want to avoid misinformation, doing so isn’t always easy.
Anyone, regardless of how educated or knowledgeable they are, is at risk of believing or sharing misinformation. Even experts and professional journalists are occasionally misled by a bad source. According to a study by the Poynter Institute, 80 percent of journalists have fallen for so-called “fake news.”
Professor Nerissa Young at the Scripps School of Communication says misinformation has become a game of profit: “It’s almost kind of scary — I’ve seen things where people are employed to put out false information for someone’s agenda. There are people being employed to deliberately send out false information.”
So how do you recognize credible health news? And how do you avoid accidentally spreading fake news? Protecting your health (and the health of others) requires remaining vigilant and aware.
There are many reasons that a person or publication might intentionally publish medical misinformation: some do it to profit off of ad revenue, some are pushing a political agenda, and some are just making a joke. But in all these cases, misinformation about medicine is hazardous to your health — and passing it along spreads that risk to others.
Before following the advice in, or sharing, an article about health or medicine, check for the following indicators that it is reliable.
A trustworthy article will cite high-quality sources and statistics. In medical news, look for citations of accredited health and science journals or of reputable national and international health bodies like the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). (One good place to find health information relevant to you is on federal health websites. You can find a repository of federal health organizations at USA.gov.) Also look for authors and quoted experts who have a verifiable online presence.
If you see a wild story that seems too extreme to be true, “it probably is,” says Professor Young. A quick way to verify that the information you've read is accurate is by searching for it online. Important news stories will be published on the websites of multiple, reputable publications. If nobody else is reporting what a Facebook video or personal blog post is saying, it may not be true.
Young recommends searching for the primary source of the information — in other words, for the source who made the initial claim. This may be a clinical study, a press release by a medical organization, or an interview with a doctor, for instance. “One thing I always teach students, and it applies to media consumers, too, is to look for the primary source!” Young says.
And in every case, before making changes to how you take care of your health and your body, get the professional opinion of your healthcare provider.
Most news outlets rely on multiple sources who are professionals and have expertise in the fields they talk about. If the topic under discussion is serious or controversial, you’ll probably see quotes from multiple professionals who have a verifiable online presence. “If it’s a hot news item, you can bet they’re gonna be featuring it prominently,” Young says.
But just because a lot of people are repeating something doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Check that the information is verified by a reputable publication. For instance, news sources to trust are established and well-known brands like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Young also advises watching the details of the story when double-checking a claim, especially if the claims seem outlandish or extreme.
Young adds, “If it’s dramatically different, or highlighting dramatic things no one else seems to know about, that could be a yellow flag that it’s misinformation.”
Here are some warning signs that news you’ve found online might not be credible.
An anonymous meme making bold claims without a corresponding informational article should be considered unverified and of dubious origin. For social media, Young has one simple rule: “Never take anything at face value.”
Real data can be twisted to push a narrative. A publication might twist facts or omit information when presenting research or poll results, in order to align with a predetermined point of view or simply to make a story interesting. When you are looking at statistics in a news story, ask yourself if you’re getting the full picture: if you’re looking at a number, find out what percentage it represents; if you’re looking at a percentage, find out what the total number is and whether it’s statistically relevant.
For example, many news sites recently published an “alarming” statistic that more than 190,000 vaccinated people have had severe cases of COVID-19, called “'breakthrough cases.” This sounds scary, but when digging deeper, it turns out those cases reflect only 0.01% of all people vaccinated.This means the vaccine works for the vast majority of people.
Just about anyone can inexpensively and easily publish information on the internet. Watch out for politically charged publications that seem more interested in pushing an agenda than educating the public. Be suspicious of clickbait blogs and news aggregators, which sometimes bend the truth for clicks.
Watch out for domains like “.com.co” or other oddities that might indicate that a site is not reputable. And note that “.edu” and “.gov” domains are still exclusive to verified educational and state institutions, and are generally trustworthy.
Clickbait is everywhere. Even legitimate publications sometimes use exaggerated headlines to get people to read their stories. Some clickbait headlines can be misleading or even outright wrong — sometimes intentionally, sometimes by accident. Don’t stop at the headline — read the whole story, and check its sources, before you come to any conclusions. (If you found the story on a social media platform like Facebook, check the comments: Are multiple people saying the headline is misleading? If so, you probably don’t need to click.)
The internet is a wonderful tool, with all the world’s latest research on your medical concerns easily accessible. Unfortunately, there is also a sea of misinformation floating around out there. By sticking to trusted, quality sources, you’ll be able to stay informed. And maintaining a relationship with a trusted healthcare provider is key to staying healthy. Before making major changes to how you take care of your health, talk to your primary care provider. If you need to find a primary care provider, visit Carbon Health and schedule a virtual or in-person appointment today.