How the Spread of Fake Health News Impacts the Public

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Every year, fake health news stories garner millions of views, likes and shares on social media before the medical community has a chance to respond. Misinformation campaigns routinely target health topics such as cures for cancer and the dangers of vaccines.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Rider University’s Master of Arts in Health Communication program.

How to identify fake health news and identify credible health news sources.

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The Rise of Fake Viral News

Fake health news stories have claimed to identify the cure for conditions such as cancer, asthma, diabetes and the flu.

The Truth About Fake Health News

In 2019, the top 50 fake health news articles garnered more than 12 million shares, comments and reactions, mostly on Facebook. Some of the bigger fake health news stories claimed that big pharma is hiding a cure for cancer, the cancer industry is more focused on making money than finding a cure, and cancer and other conditions can be cured with marijuana, papaya leaf juice, limes, and other herbs. Additionally, websites like Natural News were found to push misleading or inaccurate information on sites like Facebook.

Other fake health news stories claimed things like two handfuls of cashews were equivalent to a dose of Prozac in alleviating depression and that Mexico developed a diabetes vaccine. Disturbingly, a study by the Health Feedback and Credibility Coalition of the 10 most popular health articles of 2018 published by well-known news sources revealed three-quarters of the articles “were either misleading or included some false information.” Furthermore, just 26% of the articles shared were ranked as highly scientific.

Key Characteristics of Fake Health News Articles

Some articles overstate research findings, fail to provide context or exaggerate a thread. Additionally, some writers aren’t qualified to properly interpret data, while others have an agenda. Furthermore, some articles contain wild exaggerations, oversimplifications and inaccuracies.

Causes and Consequences of Fake Health News

Fake health news affects patients as well as doctors, causing confusion, distrust and disappointment.

Why Fake Health News Stories Go Viral

One of the biggest reasons for fake news’ viral tendencies are their sensational headlines, which grab readers’ attention and ultimately contribute to the high number of shares of misleading content. Social media algorithms also reward engagement, which helps fake news spread. Additionally, fake health news stories elicit strong emotions from readers, which makes them more likely to be shared. Individuals also tend to believe the claims that peers, colleagues or family members make in social media posts.

Medical studies, on the other hand, are difficult to read because they contain scientific jargon, figures and tables that the general public is unable to interpret. For instance, a 2017 study titled “Comparison of Hospital Mortality and Readmission Rates for Medicare Patients Treated by Male vs. Female Physicians” was simplified into the observation that female doctors are superior to male doctors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to this phenomenon. During the pandemic, the general public drastically increased its news consumption in hopes of finding good news. This increased the risk of reading fake health news.

The Cost of Fake News

False medical information and news may cause patients to become scared, delay necessary medical treatment, spend money on treatments that haven’t been medically validated or doubt their physicians’ advice or treatment plans.

Fake health news can have serious long-term health effects. It makes it more difficult for doctors to advise patients, and requires extra time and effort to correct patients’ inaccurate views. Patients may also spend hundreds of dollars on treatments and supplements that will ultimately fail to cure their conditions.

Paying Attention To the Signs

Though it may be difficult to avoid fake health news headlines, readers can take steps to learn about the signs of fake health news and identify credible health news.

The Signs of Fake Health News

One of the primary signs that can tip you off to fake health news is poor writing within the article. Another key indicator is a lack of credible sources cited in the article or post; articles featuring phrases like “scientists say” without further source details should be discarded. A third sign concerns oversharing, which is a concurrent sign of a fake health news site pursuing ad revenue. Questionable certainty in the form of claiming findings to be irrefutable is another big warning sign.

Additionally, those that create and spread fake health news know about the power of emotionally charged writing, and therefore peddle intentionally upsetting stories. Another big sign is a lack of widespread coverage of the story by numerous outlets. Finally, be wary of news sourced from social media accounts designed to look like legitimate news sources.

Tips for Identifying Credible Health News

One way to identify news that’s legitimate is to be skeptical, and don’t fall for overly simplified conclusions contained in headlines. It’s also important to understand the misinformation landscape, and to be aware that social media platforms aren’t obligated to fact-check posts and derive revenue from user engagement. Additionally, it’s important to be on guard when reading about emotionally charged and divisive topics. It’s crucial to investigate the primary sources within the article, clicking links to check if the author accurately interpreted information from a primary source. Finally, it’s a good idea to follow the money and consider who stands to gain from your believing an outlandish claim.

Be Prepared To Separate Real from Fake

Armed with a healthy dose of skepticism and determination to investigate claims from online news sources, readers will be better able to distinguish the truth from a lie.

Sources

Becker’s Health IT, Cancer Misinformation Leads Most Popular Fake Health News on Social Media: NBC Report

Fast Company, A Shockingly Large Majority of Health News Shared on Facebook is Fake or Misleading

Healthline, How Fake Health News Can Lead You to Make Dangerous Decisions

National Public Radio, Fake News: How to Spot Misinformation

Nature, Coronavirus Misinformation, and How Scientists Can Help to Fight It

NBC News, Social Media Hosted a Lot of Fake Health News This Year. Here’s What Went Most Viral

Union for International Cancer Control, Fake News: A Threat to Public Health