Evaluating health information, misinformation, and disinformation

Who can you believe?

Face it, we all slow down to look when we drive by an accident. The possibility of seeing something strange or unbelievable is too alluring to resist. Could it be we like being shocked, horrified, and amazed? Tabloid editors and yellow journalists would say yes. For centuries, they have enticed us with outrageous, sensational, and laughably ridiculous content.

By the early-19th century, the widespread use of the printing press made it easier for modern newspapers to increase their circulations as they substituted “normal” news for scoops and exposés. People couldn’t get enough of the weird, the unbelievable, and the untrue. “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835, which claimed an alien moon civilization existed, established The New York Sun as one of the most profitable tabloids of its time.

Printed word Clickbait hanging on a fishing hook. Concept about the misleading advertisements designed to attract attention and entice users to follow the linked piece of online content.

Clickbait relates to the concept of misleading advertisements and headlines designed to attract attention and entice users to follow the linked piece of online content. (Image: iStock.)

Clearly, “Fake news” wasn’t invented with the Trump presidency; it’s been around a long time. Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer (St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World) and William Hearst (publisher of the largest chain of American newspapers in the late-19th century) competed for readers through sensationalism, rumors, and falsehoods – a practice that became known as “yellow journalism.” Their incredulous “news stories” actually played a role in leading the U.S. into the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Now we have “Clickbait,” those digital headlines designed to ensnare and engage us with their outrageous claims. Each time we peruse the internet or social media, we take in public health guidance, fact sheets, infographics, research, opinions, rumors, myths, falsehoods, fiction, non-fiction, and more.

The World Health Organization and the United Nations have dubbed this unprecedented information overload an “infodemic” and it’s raging in the health-related arena.

Misinformation and disinformation are rampant on internet-based health-information websites, especially those attached to celebrity spokespersons. Misinformation is defined as false content shared without intent to cause harm; disinformation is defined as false information knowingly created and shared that often causes harm.

While health information is easy to find, reliable health information is far more elusive. It is not easy to distinguish between reliable information, misinformation, or disinformation. Below, I briefly review some general principles of how to evaluate internet-based health information. I hope this can help you find accurate information you can use to Health Yourself.

Health information credibility

Let’s start with some questions you can ask about a site’s credibility: What is the exact purpose of the site? Who runs the site? What are the credentials of the author(s) producing information?

If the purpose of the website is to sell a product or service, be skeptical since the major purpose is to encourage you to buy products, not present quality information you can use. Some websites are established by individuals or a group of people as a way to share their opinions or experiences. They may mean well, but the information they present likely will support only their opinions, not the facts. The so-called “evidence” to back their claims tends to be anecdotes and/or testimonials. This type of content may seem like it applies to everyone; it does not! Even if the opinion comes from an expert — a personal trainer, dietician, celebrity, or person with a medical degree — it is only an opinion, not fact. Facts (and relationships between facts) are not based on opinions or perceptions; they are based solely on data derived using the scientific method of hypotheses, observations, measurements, statistics and analyses, and conclusions.

An image of Marion Nestle excerpted article on Food Politics

Sample of “Industry-funded study of the week” from foodpolitics.com.

Other important credibility issues relate to financing. Who pays for this website? If it is funded by advertisements, check to make sure those ads are clearly identified as such. Watch out for ads designed to look like neutral health information, when in fact they are designed to sell, promote, or influence.

Lastly, it is important to know how information is selected and reviewed to ensure accuracy. Always read the “About Us” page to see if the site has an editorial board of known health experts from universities or medical centers, a content review process, and information about the writers’ qualifications. Note whether the author(s) have published in peer-reviewed journals. You want to avoid provocateurs or salespersons with financial interests in the products they hype.

Be extra careful if a business pays for the site; the health information is sure to favor that business and its products. Moreover, if a health-information site presents “industry-funded” research, always be skeptical. The information will most surely support the funding business’ interests.

Currency

Currency relates to the quality and timeliness of the information. High-quality information doesn’t promote one treatment over another and always presents balanced facts based on peer-reviewed research.Beware of dramatic writing, promises of cures, and health claims that sound too good to be true – they are sure signs of a “health fraud scam.”

To evaluate the quality of a website’s information, find out where the information comes from: Are there links to peer-reviewed research and/or medical exxperts or health authorities? Find out if the information is up to date: Does the site present dates when the information was written, reviewed, or updated? Are there links or citations to original peer-reviewed research? Is the information cited correctly, or at all? Does the site identify any conflicts of interest of the authors or site originators? Often, industry-funded information is biased, resulting in misinformation and/or disinformation.

Also, it’s important to check if the site regularly updates its information. Remember how rapidly COVID research and  information shaped public policy?

Finding quality health information

In general, you’ll find viable and trustworthy health information on websites run by federal government agencies, medical schools, and large professional or nonprofit organizations. For example, the professional organization the American College of Cardiology and the nonprofit Heart.org are reliable sources of information on heart health. Other agencies target other types of information.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of websites I am confident you can trust. I routinely visit many of these sites when I am searching for current research and health-related details.

 

References

  • Chou, Sylvia WY, Gaysynsky, A., Cappella, J.N., “Where we go from here: Health misinformation on social media.” American Journal of Public Health. 2020;110(S3):S273-S275.
  • Gage-Bouchard, E.A., et al., “Is cancer information exchanged on social media scientifically accurate?” Journal of Cancer Education. 2018;33(6):1328.
  • Potthast, et al., “Clickbait detection,” Advances in Information Retrieval: 38th European Conference on IR Research, ECIR 2016, Switzerland: Springer, 2016, pp. 810–817.
  • Soll, Jacob, “The long and brutal history of fake news.” Politico Magazine, 18-Dec-2016. [Online].
  • Vosoughi, S., et al., “The spread of true and false news online.” Science. 2018;359(6380):1146.
  • Wang, Y., et al., “Systematic literature review on the spread of health-related misinformation on social media.” Social Science & Medicine. 2019;240:112552.

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