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Understanding and Confronting Health Misinformation

In less than a second and one click on the search bar, thousands of search results can be generated from one query. The continuously expanding presence of online information has changed how we access health-related content. Although this can be valuable to an extent, a growing concern has emerged with the rising numbers of false, inaccurate, and misleading health information within the digital world. Anyone can share health advice online, lacking proper verification or evidence. This abundance of unchecked content poses a significant challenge. The public can inattentively access misinformation at their fingertips, which can jeopardize well-being and undermine informed decision-making.

The National Library of Medicine (NIH) conducted a study on the most common health misinformation circulated on social media. The study found that up to 87% of the most common misinformation found online is related to smoking products and drugs, such as opioids and marijuana. Vaccines also had misleading information, with the human papillomavirus being the most common, reaching 43%. False health information related to diets and eating disorders accounted for 36% and 40% of false health information was related to diseases, such as non-communicable diseases and pandemics. The lowest levels of health misinformation were related to medical treatments, accounting for 30%. (4)

Let’s dive into evaluating health information, finding the right resources, and understanding the reasoning and consequences behind false health information.

How to Evaluate Health Information:

KFF released a survey called Health Misinformation Tracking Poll Pilot that was executed in May 2023. The report examines the public's media use and susceptibility to misinformation. According to the Health Misinformation Tracking Poll Pilot, "Overall, health misinformation is widely prevalent in the U.S. with 96% of adults saying they have heard at least one of the ten items of health-related misinformation asked about in the survey." (6)

Effectively evaluating the accuracy of health information requires a multifaceted approach to distinguish reliable sources from misinformation. Education and curriculum coordinator at Northwestern University’s Galter Health Sciences Library and Learning Center, Molly Beestrum developed a convenient way to check various mediums for misinformation known as the CRAP test. (5)  This test considers four major attributes: currency, reliability, authority, and purpose.

Currency – Does the medium have current information for the topic being researched? Checking for recent updates is essential since medical knowledge is constantly evolving.

Reliability – Are there any references or sources included? Another technique for validating reliable health information is cross-referencing information across diverse, credible sources.

Authority – Who is the author, publisher, and sponsor and are they reputable? Check the source by verifying that it comes from a reputable medical institution, health care professional, or recognized governmental agency.

Purpose – Does the medium seem to be pushing a certain agenda? Be hesitant towards exaggerated claims, sensational language or promises of miraculous outcomes, as these often signal unreliable content.

Developing a critical mindset, questioning information, and consulting a healthcare professional for clarification contribute to a more informed approach to receiving reliable health information.

How to Find Reliable Health Information:

Navigating the vast sea of online health information can be intimidating. A crucial step in the process is consulting reputable resources that are endorsed by healthcare professionals, governmental health agencies, or established healthcare organizations. These sources follow high standards of accuracy and evidence-based information. The guide below includes questions that critically evaluate information to make well-informed decisions about whether a source on a specific medium is credible.

Websites | Who owns or sponsors the website?

Often, the ending of a website’s URL will show reliability. While many commercial websites do provide accurate and useful information, it can be harder to distinguish which ones to trust. If you cannot tell if the website is owned by a healthcare professional, a way to debunk a website with false claims is to look for dramatic writing, or advertisements that blend in and are designed to look like unbiased health information on the page. Ask yourself, what is the purpose of the site? A trustworthy website will have one goal; to spread accurate and reliable information. (1)

  • .gov – Identifies U.S. government agency. (2)

  • .edu – Identifies an educational institution, such as a school, college, university, or advocacy group. (2)

  • .com – Identifies commercial websites, such as businesses and pharmaceutical companies. (2)

  • .org – Identifies non-profit organizations, open-source projects, and educational platforms.

Social Media | Who is this information coming from and how is it presented?

Social media platforms are popular amongst millions of Americans. Many use it as a form of entertainment, advice and updates from their community, family, and friends. According to the Health Misinformation Tracking Poll Pilot, “Most adults (55%) say they use social media at least once a week to keep up to date on news and current events, including a third (33%) who say they use it every day. About one in four (24%) say they use social media at least weekly to find health information and advice, though four in ten say they “never” do this.” (6) 

A social media post may come from someone you know or watch often and have developed trust in, but that does not mean that it is reliable information. According to the Health Misinformation Tracking Poll Pilot, “54% of those who use social media for health information and advice at least weekly say they have heard at least one of the false COVID-19 and vaccine claims and think it is definitely or probably true, compared to 40% of those who don’t use social media for health advice.” (6) Many of the questions you would ask when evaluating a website work for social media as well. Here are three questions to ask.

  1. Where is the information coming from?

  2. Why does it exist? Is there an ulterior motive?

  3. Is anyone sponsoring or funding this information?

News | Some news stories may be biased or may not include all the information that you need to know to make an informed decision. Here are some things to look out for when consuming news.

Local TV news, national network news and digital and online news platforms are the top consumed news outlets in the United States. News platforms can include biased information, and there is a growing number of non-traditional news sources. According to the Health Misinformation Tracking Poll Pilot, “Less than half (45%) of adults say they have heard one of the five false COVID-19 and vaccine claims and believe it is definitely or probably true. That share rises to 76% of regular Newsmax viewers, and 67% of regular OANN viewers, and 61% of regular Fox News viewers.” (6)

Books | Below are questions to ask when evaluating health information from books.

  1. When was the book published and is the author a reliable resource for the subject?

  2. Does the book offer different perspectives?

  3. Has the book been reviewed by other experts and does the book list reliable sources?

If you feel that certain medical research applies to you, it is highly recommended to check in with your healthcare provider before making any medical decisions that may affect your health.

Why is There False, Inaccurate and Misleading Information Online?

It's common for people to unknowingly share false health information for various reasons. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shares in a Community Toolkit for Addressing Health Misinformation that some may share it to spread new information, protect their loved ones, seek explanations for events, or feel connected with others. (3) Understanding these motives can help you determine the reliability of the information. Here are some indicators that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends watching for that can help you identify and understand who is behind misleading information. (3)

Troll | Deliberately creates false information for fun or to get a reaction.

Deceiver | Deliberately creates false information for self-benefit. Will typically use their following to spread information.

Influencer | Creates content with an ulterior motive: to make money or maintain status. Will often exaggerate things or leave out information.

Follower | Posts misinformation or information that may be biased in support of a person, company, or cause.

Oversharer | Shares misinformation too fast without checking sources or because it aligns with their opinions/views.

The Effects of False, Inaccurate and Misleading Health Information

False health information is becoming increasingly prevalent and can have serious consequences. According to KFF, studies show that consuming misleading health information is linked to increased exposure and belief in false findings. (6) Spreading or consuming inaccurate health information can lead to damaging effects such as health scams, unnecessary stress, improper treatment, and even conflict within the community. Therefore, it's essential to be aware of the signs of fraudulent resources and take steps to prevent the spread of harmful information.

There are several steps you can take to prevent the spread of inaccurate information online. Follow these steps to ensure that you are not sharing false information and help prevent it from being shared further:

  1. If you're not certain, avoid sharing.

  2. Educate yourself on reliable sources. (Share these tips with your community)

  3. Share good information if you come across it.

  4. Report false information. 

In conclusion, combatting health misinformation is crucial for promoting public well-being. It is imperative for individuals to critically evaluate information, rely on reputable sources and engage in open conversations to promote the sharing of accurate health information. By raising awareness, we can work towards a healthy, more informed society.  



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