Health disinformation: when to be suspicious

Lately, the topic of health is everywhere, in newspapers, on television programs and even in social network conversations. Is all this information reliable? When should we be suspicious? How can we trust information on such sensitive issues?

Posted by Ivan Herrera Peco | 23.03.2021

Let’s be honest, nowadays, a large part of society around the world uses the internet and social media to keep up with what is happening and even how to take care of their health.

The information we find may be truthful, accurate, and consistent with scientific research; however, we may also come across information that is untruthful and/or erroneous. As far as erroneous content is concerned, there is a difference between health content that offers intentionally misleading information, which is disinformation, and health content based on an erroneous interpretation of scientific data; this is what is known as misinformation.

Health Hoaxes: Characteristics

How can we know if the information we find is a hoax or disinformation? Typically, hoaxes and disinformation have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • They use dramatic or sensationalist content to provoke intense emotions: indignation, laughter, surprise, etc.
  • They do not seek to inform in the strict sense; instead, they try to grab your attention, spark your imagination, and make you think, “Well, it seems real and offers so much information. Maybe it’s true.”
  • They are written in a simple but ambiguous way, which makes it extremely easy to confuse the message.

Obviously, we must understand that if we follow health advice that is based on incorrect information, it can adversely affect our physical and mental health, as well as those around us. For example, if you believe an influencer who says drinking hot water will prevent coronavirus. This is not a proper prevention measure and following this advice would put yourself and others at risk.

Watch out! Warning signs

So, what kind of content from social networks or any other messaging channel (Telegram, WhatsApp, etc.), should we “quarantine” and not spread?

Miracles: too good to be true. First, you should always be suspicious when you read miraculous “stories of success, healing, change of habits, etc.”, starring the author or someone close to the author. These people often tell their stories as if they had to “walk through fire” in order to bring you the information.

General solution. “It is an excellent remedy! It is the solution to all your problems! It works for everyone without exception.” If you hear anything like this, you can assume it is probably false.

Irrefutable: True forever more. Some claim that they have irrefutable data that will never be disproven. I am sorry to break it to you…NO ONE can offer you absolute truth or a 100% probability of a cure. EVER. No one who knows science would tell you that. The scientific method itself is based on skepticism, i.e., that data obtained by a researcher will be tested by others. Scientific conclusions can change when there is new evidence that has been obtained through well-designed studies and whose results can be replicated by other scientists.

Experience and not science. “Quarantine” any health information that is based exclusively on individual, personal cases, or specific experiences. If you cannot replicate it, it’s suspicious and if it’s suspicious, do not spread it. Right?

Quick and easy remedies. Be careful if a message implies haste or speed, or if it offers an immediate (positive) result. You should automatically distrust anything that says something like, “If you take X, you will be cured immediately.” Good science requires a great deal of time and effort, not to mention economic investment and research personnel who diligently check everything before arriving at a conclusion.

Well-guarded secrets. “Nobody has realized it until now, and if they knew, they didn’t want to tell you. That’s why we’re telling you here on this social network/messaging channel.” If it is so important, why isn’t it all over the media and why hasn’t it been marketed before?

Simple yet moving language. Although scientific communication should be accessible to everyone, this is not always the case. Carefully check any information with language that is too simple and or that is expressed in a way that is meant to stir your emotions.

Influencers and testimonials. Be careful if there are references to famous people, whether they are journalists, artists, athletes, clinical professionals (there are some), or social network influencers. These personalities “support” the message conveyed in the information but beware of what is known as authority bias. Just because something is said by a famous person or someone in a position of power, it is not necessarily true. Also, if the information comes to you in the form of a testimonial, distrust it. It is easy to trust testimonials when people give their full names, tell you where they work and even their training. If that happens, be even more suspicious, they may be impersonating someone or outright lying. Perhaps they are who they say they are, in which case, check if some of the previous elements are true.

Incorrect translations and relevant omissions. Another common characteristic of this type of information is that it often refers to scientific studies published in prestigious, international journals. But beware, all that glitters is not gold, and you should always carefully read the links provided. They may be trying to mislead you, or they may have made a mistake in the translation. Most scientific literature is written in English, which can be a barrier if English is not your first language; however, scientific writing and jargon can be difficult to understand even for native speakers. There are also times that the person writing the news does not have the appropriate knowledge to understand what the original authors intended and they can misinterpret the information so that it fits with their narrative. Finally, some writers choose to leave out “small details” from referenced texts because those details completely dismantle the argument that they are trying to make.

Pseudoscience disguised as legitimate science

Sometimes scientific articles are used to give content a “coating” of scientific truth. In hoaxes and poor-quality information, we often find:

Only one source. Very simplified conclusions are presented, and they come from a single scientific article. Science and journalism require multiple sources.

No links. They may refer to “studies” which support their ideas, but there are no links to the primary sources (scientific articles).

Insufficient evidence. They rely on articles that do not provide adequate clinical evidence. What do I mean? Well, not all published articles are valid enough to justify certain treatments in human beings.

Correlation is not causation. They confuse mathematical analyses that do not prove that the application of an element “A” causes an improvement in the patient with disease “X”. This type of news often overlooks the fact that correlation between two elements does not imply that one causes the other. This is a major problem and an enormous source of confusion and misinformation, even among health professionals. An article from the magazine “Muy Interesante / Very interesting” (illustrated on this page) claims that garlic prevents the risk of lung cancer. The “Muy Interesante” article mentions scientific studies from prestigious journals but it does not provide the link to those studies. In addition, the article confuses observational studies -where nothing is proven-, uses studies of cell cultures -which are not necessarily applicable to humans- and confuses correlation with causation.

Incorrect methodology. They do not check the methods or the details of how the study has been conducted. This is important because these writers offer hope for new treatments or drugs that are still in the early stages of the research process. Something that has only been tested on cell cultures or animals is not ready for widespread use on humans.

Covid-19: lab coat hoaxes

Health hoaxes are often spread by people wearing lab coats and posing as health care professionals. Hoaxes can also be spread by people who really are, in fact, health care professionals, but their information is based on feelings and personal experience, not scientific data and knowledge.

Undoubtedly, you have seen numerous videos of people questioning the Covid-19 data presented by national and international health organizations. One of the most shocking videos seen around the world is one in which 33 “doctors and other professionals” present data that contradicts mainstream professionals. However, their sources either do not exist or cannot be reached. They claim that all the prevention measures and treatments related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus (and the resulting Covid-19 disease) are either ineffective or unnecessary because, they say, the pathogen does not exist.

The people who appear in this video define themselves as doctors; however, a simple search of their names reveals that while some of them are, in fact, doctors, others are not. Furthermore, some of the people do not have the degrees or credentials that the video claims they have. This is a clear example of manipulation using authority bias. We are meant to believe them simply because they have a university degree that is linked to the clinical environment.

However, if you pay close attention to this video, you will notice that it is full of personal observations which are not supported by scientific evidence. Some of the people in the video have close ties to controversial movements, such as the anti-vaccine movements or “Doctors for the Truth”. I invite you to take a good look at the 33 “experts”. Just a brief investigation of the first 10 on the list should make you doubt and encourage you to “quarantine” what you have heard.

To conclude, the best thing you can do when you come across a news story of this type is to read it, take a deep breath and take time to think. Don’t let an itchy trigger finger click “share” before you have time to consider what you’ve read or heard.

It is a normal human reaction to want to share new “information”, especially if it has caused an emotional response in us. It is easy to be tempted to “help” others by spreading “super useful” information… or at least what seems to be useful at first glance.

It is very important that we learn to read and listen carefully and critically. Take your time. If you find any of the elements mentioned above, do not spread the story, “quarantine” it. One of the best ways to “fight” the disinformation created by these hoaxes is to break the chain of infection.

 

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