“Sometimes when interests are trying to manipulate your opinion, their true goal might be to add another layer between you and the truth.” — Sharyl Attkisson
When the internet was created, there was an expectation that easy access to global discussion would greatly reduce the impact of misinformation. Sadly, due to intense polarisation and algorithm-driven bubbles, falsities have become extremely difficult to separate from facts in the public eye.
Worse, being aware of this issue doesn’t allow you to flawlessly separate truth from fiction. We’re all vulnerable to being tricked. It’s so bad that some have claimed we’re living in a post-truth world. Are we? Well, we may not have reached that point: the most egregious lies may be shared, but that doesn’t mean they’re truly believed. Even so, danger abounds.
It’s particularly difficult when the information being shared and contested concerns something essential like healthcare. Many people give medical claims the benefit of the doubt, assuming that those making them are fully qualified with research to back them up. So what can you do to keep yourself safe?
What steps can you take to protect yourself against fake news?
In the digital world, it seems like everyone is desperate to share their own opinions, facts, and advice. Facilitating this, there are so many channels: social media platforms, news networks, podcasts, and even games. To ensure you avoid the most misleading and poorly-informed information, you must take a step back and commit to critical thinking.
Here are some actions you can take to form a solid idea of whether you’re dealing with sensible well-intended information or something more troubling:
Pay close attention to the source of your information
When it comes to a medical study or research project, something you read through a channel such as a social media platform is very unlikely to accurately represent its methods or its findings. Many users and publications will manipulate articles to better fit their views, picking only the parts they can frame to further their agendas.
When you look for health advice, you should prioritise official sources, and otherwise look for publications that are reputable, professional, and clearly committed to giving you genuine information with minimal bias. When you’re dealing with any type of medical seller, consider necessary and desired credentials: online pharmacies operating in the UK must be regulated by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), for instance, so a lack of CQC credentials is a compelling reason for you to go elsewhere.
Organisations with clear medical credentials were invaluable during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because the digital world is always looking to react and reach conclusions as quickly as possible, and that process during times of strife inevitably delivers confusion and panic. Blog sites and social media pages, however harmlessly, are susceptible to sharing posts without properly checking them first.
Make sure you fact-check information
If you’re planning to share content that pertains to healthcare, it’s vital to fact-check it very carefully before you proceed. If you haven’t even the tiniest shred of doubt, hold back and do some extra research to eliminate that doubt. There’s no harm in searching for consensus. The more reputable sources are singing from the same hymn sheet, the better.
Is national (or even international) consensus always correct? No, of course not — but when it errs, it errs on the side of excessive caution, and that’s the right approach to take.
Why is fake news so dangerous to the healthcare industry?
Media reports show that 93 million Americans use the internet to research health-related subjects, and it’s easy to understand why. When you’re feeling ill, don’t you want information as quickly as possible? Due to this, circulating falsehoods surrounding medical conditions and treatments pose a real threat to public health.
Some erroneously-recommended treatments will simply prove ineffective, wasting time and money. Others will be outright dangerous, worsening conditions and/or producing new ones.
The impact of fake news on patient treatment
The most contemporary example is the coronavirus pandemic. Conspiracy theories linking COVID-19 to the latest 5G mobile technology caused widespread panic, leading people to completely misunderstand the workings of this now-infamous virus. Believing that it was caused by 5G will have led some people to refrain from being vaccinated.
And then there are the many claims of quick fixes and miracle cures. The Independent covered how these posts have conquered social media outside of the COVID-19 bubble, referencing an article published on healtheternally.com with the headline: “Dandelion weed can boost your immune system and cure cancer”.
There’s no evidence to suggest that such a root could possibly help treat cancer, yet it became one of the most popular posts on Facebook. With dangerous claims doing the rounds in an infinite loop, medical experts are fighting a losing battle to debunk the myths.
And with COVID-19 heaping on the pressure to find answers, unscrupulous types took full advantage. Hundreds of people reportedly died after consuming methanol after social media buzz heralded it as a potent coronavirus treatment. Many others subjected themselves to temperatures in excess of 25 degrees celsius because they’d been led to believe that it would prevent them from contracting the virus.
Whether they’re killed, left in worse condition, or simply kept from getting legitimate treatment, people who buy into healthcare misinformation never benefit. And while they’re not technically responsible, the onus is on people and organisations in the healthcare industry to protect those who don’t know enough about medicine to protect themselves.