The Danger of Fake Health News


By Tracey Dowdy

It’s no surprise to say fake news is dangerous, but when it comes to fake health news, the stakes are even higher.

Misinformation published by conspiracy sites regarding serious health conditions is often more widely shared than actual evidence-based reports from reputable sources, according to The Independent. Of the 20 most-shared articles on Facebook in 2016 that included the word “cancer” in the headline, over half reported claims that have been debunked by health authorities or discredited directly by the source cited in the article.

Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute says, “My sense is that of all the categories of fake news, health news is the worst. There’s more bad health news out there than there is in any other category and reliable sources on other topics are [sometimes] really bad on healthcare news.”

Consider this: worldwide, there are over 2.01 billion monthly active Facebook users. Many of these users rely on Facebook for news and information, yet few are careful to vet the source of articles read and shared.

Some of the articles that have gone viral are fairly innocuous, like the ones purporting to list the benefits of brushing your teeth with charcoal or rinsing your mouth with coconut oil. Spotting the outright fakes can be challenging, as the articles are often linked to sites and sources that appear to be reputable.

Jackie Zimmerman, founder of the non-profit Girls With Guts, a support group for girls and women with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, often uses Facebook as a platform to get trending news and information to the group’s 15,000 members. But because Facebook is an open forum where anyone can post just about anything, Zimmerman chose to create a separate, private Facebook group for any discussions. This way, administrators can vet participants and screen out any fake news.

She suggests that if you spot fake news, you respectfully point it out and direct the poster to the correct information. Be respectful; many of the people posting inaccurate information are doing so with the best of motives, not malice.

Second, if you’re an administrator of a Facebook group, be sure the rules are pinned to the top of the page and easily seen by members. Then, should you have to address someone posting content that needs to be removed, you can respond with “sorry, your post is a violation of our rules” without seeming harsh or unreasonable.

Finally, don’t offer medical advice – not even if you’re a medical professional. Engage in discussion, but “ask your doctor” should be your default response if asked for advice.

A spokesman for the charity Sense About Science says, “While there is no easy way to know what to believe, there are questions you can ask, including, What’s the evidence for this claim? What does the research show? What do other scientists say? By knowing what kind of questions to ask, we can all make steps towards a culture change on false health stories.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.


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