Just how factually accurate are most health articles you come across? You might be savvy enough to sort Goop from the Mayo Clinic, but when it comes to traditional news outlets, you might also be surprised to learn how much false information is really out there.
Health Feedback, a bipartisan network of scientists who collectively assess the credibility of health media coverage, worked together with the Credibility Coalition to examine the 100 most popular health articles of 2018–specifically, those with the highest number of social media engagements. They studied stories from numerous well-known websites, such as Time, NPR, the Huffington Post, Daily Mail, New Scientist, CNN, and more.
Of the top 10 shared articles, scientists found that three quarters were either misleading or included some false information. Only three were considered “highly credible.” Some lacked context of the issue, exaggerated the harms of a potential threat, or overstated research findings. Many writers either twisted data or simply couldn’t properly interpret it. Others, it seems, had an agenda.
Consider a Guardian story titled “Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?” (shared 469,000 times), which was found to be “not credible and potentially harmful.” The author suggested that most cases of depression are not due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, but from a lack of fulfillment in one’s life.
Health Feedback scientists noted that The Guardian article never backs up its claims with links to original sources or research studies to support its findings.
“This article is an excerpt from a provocative book written by a lay person who is clearly anti-psychiatry, so there is no pretense of providing evidence (except cherry-picking evidence which supports his views) or a balanced viewpoint,” writes Raymond Lam, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry. “It is full of wild exaggerations, oversimplifications and inaccuracies.”
The top 10 list featured some real head-scratchers, like one piece declaring bacon as harmful as cigarettes (shared 587,000 times). Time magazine, however, published two credible health articles that made that top 10 list, including “Stem Cell Treatment Could Be A Game-Changer for MS Patients” ( shared 561,000 times).
Health Feedback approximates that of these 10 articles, 2.1 million shares (33%) had very low scientific rating, while 2.6 million shares (41%) ranked neutral. The smallest category belonged to those deemed highly scientific at 1.7 million shares (26%).
Researchers then went on to examine the top 100 articles, many of which were also shared in the hundreds of thousands. The top three topics were:
- disease/disease treatment
- food and nutrition
- vaccinations (of course)
In terms of overall credibility, slightly less than half achieved a high credibility rating. However, highly rated articles received 11 million shares, while poorly rated articles had roughly 8.5 million shares. Of the latter category, there was a piece that linked ramen noodles to Alzheimer’s, and another that claimed onions can be used to treat ear infections.
The Health Feedback team believes the high share of misleading reporting is partially due to sensationalized headlines that grab readers’ attention. More balanced pieces lack clickbait framing. “This means that the general public is more likely to come into contact with misleading information than accurate ones on social media,” says the research team.
Given the way social media algorithms incentivize engagement, this is not terribly surprising: Fake news has been shown to spread faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, according to a recent report in Science.False stories often prey on emotions like fear, disgust, or surprise, and people are more likely to share what moves them. That it’s novel makes it all the more appealing.
The rampant spread of inaccurate health claims across the internet prompted the AMA Journal of Ethics to call for clinicians to clear up fake information with their patients. Ultimately, this troubling trend poses public health risks, as evidenced by the recent rise of anti-vaccination content.
Health Feedback found that fake health news predominantly spreads on Facebook. The social media platform accounts for 96% of shares of the top 100 articles, followed by Reddit accounts (2%) and Twitter (1%).
Facebook is aware of the issue: the social media giant deleted dozens of pages dedicated to fringe or holistic medicine in an apparent crackdown on pseudoscience.
The purge reportedly began in June, several months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly vowed to crack down on fake news.While that term is typically associated with politics, misinformation is not limited to partisan topics. Alternative health pages have been known to spread misleading or false information about medicinal remedies that are not backed by traditional science.
Facebook’s efforts may have been well intentioned, but its health news purge attracted criticism by those who viewed it as an attack on holistic or Eastern health practices. The Global Freedom Movement, an alternative media site, reported that Facebook purged over 80 accounts and that “no reason was provided.”
This included rather large accounts focused on health, natural remedies, and organic living, such as Just Natural Medicine (1 million followers), Natural Cures Not Medicine (2.3 million followers), and People’s Awakening (3.6 million followers). Small accounts with under 15,000 followers were also hit.
Susan Krenn, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, told us she’s seen a noticeable increase in inaccurate and downright false stories on social media platforms. Often, such postings possess far more sway than content outlets.
“It’s a challenge, because when you see something posted on your social media site that comes from one of your peers, colleagues, or family members, you are more likely to believe it,” said Krenn.
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