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We tell you how to spot a bogus medical news story when you see one.
So, clearly we made those up. But fake news is on the rise and isn’t always easy to spot… and believing what you read could be dangerous. Even deadly. WH health editor Tracy Middleton gives a crash course in busting bogus medical info.
In the past year, I’ve gotten more questions from friends and acquaintances about health headlines they saw online than I ever have before. Can waist trainers really shrink love handles? Taking antibiotics for a cold is okay, right? OMG, do I really not need to floss? I’m no doctor, but as the health editor for Women’s Health, my friends know my BS meter for dubious wellness facts is pretty refined. (For the record, my answers were: no, no, and I wish, but no.)
These are savvy, educated women, but they expect that when a headline is shared by someone they know and trust, it’s legit. Or, if it comes from a respected news outlet, that it’s been rigorously factchecked and not exaggerated. Yet increasingly, that’s not always the case. Dishonest and misleading health news, especially news found online, has risen in lockstep with other fake headlines and is often shared more often than evidence-based reports, according to an analysis in The Independent. Researchers found that of the 20 mostshared articles on Facebook in 2016 that included “cancer” in the headline, more than half of their claims had been discredited by health authorities. And three of the most shared and liked stories about HPV (human papillomavirus) had been debunked.
The 24/7 news cycle—and the ability to add our own take onto what we read and hear via social media—has amplified the spread of dodgy health information, says Janet Johnson, PHD, a social media scholar and clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. “There are credible sites that will tell you about a new study without sensationalising it, but those get lost amid the noise of clicky headlines, which are shared more often,” notes Johnson. That’s a massive problem, since nearly 90 percent of people say they would trust or act on health information they read on social media, yet research shows 60 percent of links shared are passed along by people who haven’t read the content themselves. Yikes.
Fake health news is most pervasive around issues that conventional medicine hasn’t yet delivered a cure or quick fix for, such as cancer, lower-back pain and infertility, says David Colquhoun, PHD, a professor of pharmacology at University College London, whose blog exposes shady health stories. His theory of why people are so apt to believe false claims: “Some people, and even some doctors, prefer hope to no hope.”
The results of following online health advice can range from relatively benign (eating more of a specific food purported to hasten weight loss) to life-threatening (taking a supplement instead of undergoing chemotherapy to eradicate cancer).
The crackdown on false news is gaining steam. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised to combat fake news of all types, and in January, Google banned nearly 200 publishers for spreading misleading info. But the tools you need to ensure your health headlines are true already exist. I use them— and so can you.
Credible sites that don’t sensationalise a new study get lost amid clicky headlines.
HATE TO CRUSH YOUR HOPES, BUT NO SINGLE FOOD CAN GUARANTEE WELLNESS.