Misinformation in science : how false medical news on social media miseducates our society

Social media platforms have taken a leading role in our everyday lives and have changed the way we obtain health information online. The most recent topic fueling disinformation is the novel Coronavirus. However, it is not the only one.

71% of respondents in a recently released special Eurobarometer survey say that they encounter fake news several times a month or more often. At least two thirds say they come across fake news at least once a week. The survey measured attitudes towards the impact of digitalisation on daily lives of Europeans in 27 EU Member States and the United Kingdom.

According to the Pew Research Center 35% of the American adult population tries to figure out online what medical conditions they might have. A  study measured the number of the top shared health misinformation in the Polish language social media and found that 40% of the most frequently shared links on social media were classified as fake news and were shared over 450,000 times with the most concerned content being vaccines, while another study found that the use of cannabis as a cancer cure generated 4.26 million engagements on social media, whereas accurate news generated only 0.036 million engagements.

Social media is a difficult case where uncontrolled health misinformation can spread quickly. False medical news can cause fear and panic in people, in many cases completely unfounded – says Professor Jakab. He advises the general public to accept official statements only from national or international epidemiological and public health authorities and research institutes, and calls on legal actions to be taken against unreliable sources.

False news promoting alternative cancer cures

Health misinformation on serious health conditions is often shared more widely than evidence-based reports from accurate sources, which may lead to a higher risk of mistreatment and the rejection of evidence based medicine or conventional cancer treatment options. Irrespective of doctors’ advice, patient self-diagnosis and the use of alternative therapies are escalating.

Researchers at Stanford University have carried out research on misinformation disseminating online about using cannabis to cure cancer and found that 23.5% of social media content on alternative cancer cures suggested the use of cannabis.  The top false story promoting cannabis as a treatment for cancer generated 4.26 million engagements, as opposed to the 0.036 million engagements that were linked to the top accurate and debunking news story.

Comparison of relative search volume (RSV) of Google searches for cannabis versus standard therapies for cancer. False News of a Cannabis Cancer Cure.. Shi, S., Brant, A. R., Sabolch, A., & Pollom, E. (2019). Cureus, 11(1), e3918. doi:10.7759/cureus.3918

In general, refusal of conventional cancer treatment is associated with complementary medicine use and threatens to reverse progress made in curing cancer. A study found that patients who received complementary treatment were more likely to refuse conventional cancer treatment and were of a 2-fold greater risk of death than those who had not received complementary medicine. Researchers Dr. Yu and Dr. Johnson say complementary medicine can be pursued, as long as it does not interfere with conventional medical treatment, and they encourage patients to pursue complementary therapies that may help them feel better and improve their subjective symptoms. Furthermore, they advise  patients to talk about their hopes and fears around undergoing a medical therapy, as well as asking that doctors listen to their patients without pretense or judgement.

A false news factory all-time favorite : vaccines cause autism

Despite numerous studies, finding no evidence on the hypothesized link between Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccines and autism, the anti-vaccination movement is still active and the World Health Organization considers it one of the ten most pressing public health issues around the world.

How the anti-vaccination movement started

The anti-vaccination movement started in 1999 when a study suggested that the MMR vaccine may be linked to and trigger pervasive developmental disorders, such as autism. Despite the small sample size and the uncontrolled design of the study it quickly went viral. However, the paper later has been completely retracted, admitting that several elements in it were incorrect. Still, the myth has stayed with us ever since and the agenda continues to be pushed through social media. Most of the Facebook ads for the anti-vaccination movement are financed by two big organizations according to a recent study.

The spread of misinformation leads to a growing popularity of vaccine hesitancy in spite of the scientific data that systematically debunk its claims, says Professor Dimitrakopoulou, project lead of a new, partly EU funded project coordinated by the University of Zürich. Changing the content of information itself cannot address the challenge of fake news effectively, unless we can understand the nuances of what makes misinformation appealing to people – she continues. The project uses the anti-vaccine myth as an example case study to examine how pseudo-scientific news is diffused within social media networks and how it affects human judgement and behavior. It aims at providing insights on multiple levels of how misinformation is spread and reinforced in the public conversation.

The spread of health misinformation online should be addressed therefore by verifying that the information is accurate and is from reputative sources before taking it into serious consideration. According to Professor Dimitrakopoulou in order to address misinformation we need to introduce and accommodate initiatives that foster deep and insightful conversations with people in order to understand how their personal experiences have influenced the way they think and feel about the topic. Changing the content of information itself cannot address the challenge of fake news effectively, unless we can understand in great nuance what makes misinformation appealing to people. Identifying sources and taking legal actions might reduce the spread of health misinformation – adds Professor Jakab.

By Bernadett M. Varga

This article has originally been published by the European Science and Media Hub and it is accessible here.

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