A nurse holds up a one dose bottle and a prepared syringe of measles, mumps and rubella virus vaccine made by Merck at the Utah County Health Department on April 29, 2019 in Provo, Utah.
George Frey | Getty Images
A cabal of doctors are hiding the cure for cancer, berries are more effective than vaccines, and eating instant noodles can kill you: These are some of the claims from the internet’s most viral fake health news in 2019.
Health misinformation was a big deal this year. Facing pressure from lawmakers, doctors and health advocates, social media platforms made sweeping policy changes to ban or limit the spread of false health information that had gone unchecked for over a decade.
To get a sense of the landscape of fake health news this year, NBC News compiled a list of the most viral health misinformation and analyzed the data to see where it spread and how people engaged with it.
The most viral pieces of fake health news pushed far-reaching conspiracies between governments and medical communities and suggested ditching common medical treatment of life-threatening diseases for unproven cures. The top 50 articles garnered more than 12 million shares, comments and reactions this year, mostly on Facebook.
NBC News’ analysis was modeled after the methodology used in two recent studies: a 2018 study in which researchers from the Medical University of Gdansk measured the most shared stories containing health misinformation in Poland and a 2019 study in which Stanford researchers tracked the online activity surrounding the false idea that cannabis cures cancer.
NBC News used social media analysis tool BuzzSumo to search for keywords related to the most common diseases and causes of death in the U.S. The search was widened to include health topics routinely targeted by misinformation campaigns: vaccines, fluoride and natural cures. Only articles with more than 25,000 engagements were considered; 80 made up the final list.
Though researchers do suggest poor health journalism can misinform the public, this count does not include articles from legitimate news outlets that may reach false conclusions, cover flawed studies or inflate the findings of single studies, as is often the case with conflicting news articles concerning the health benefits of red wine, chocolate and coffee, for instance.
Cancer, unproven cures and vaccines
Eighty percent of people online are using the internet to search for health information. An NBC News analysis raises concerns for just what information people might have found in 2019.
The most viral health misinformation in 2019 was on the topics of cancer, unproven cures and vaccines, according to NBC’s review. In some cases, including on the topics of cancer and fluoride, fake health news dominated overall news about the issue.
The most engaged-with article about cancer in 2019, for example, pushed a stew of medical conspiracies, including that “Big Pharma,” a nebulous group that includes doctors and federal health organizations, is hiding a cure for cancer. The April article, “Cancer industry not looking for a cure; they’re too busy making money,” garnered 5.4 million engagements after being published on Natural News, a website owned and operated by Mike Adams, a dietary supplement purveyor who goes by the moniker “The Health Ranger.” The article found its widest audience on Facebook, where Natural News had nearly 3 million followers until it was banned in June for using “misleading or inaccurate information” to attract engagement, according to a statement Facebook sent Ars Technica.
The next closest article about cancer was a legitimate (though overhyped) report from a Florida Fox affiliate on an experimental breast cancer vaccine. The article was shared by 1.8 million users.
Overall, cancer was the subject of the most popular kind of health misinformation, with viral articles promoting unproven cures for cancer making up roughly a third of our list. Marijuana was one of the most popular alleged cures in the genre, which correlates with audience demand: Stanford University researchers recently found that online searches for cannabis and cancer had grown at 10 times the rate of other standard medical therapies.
Dozens of viral articles hosted on rings of click bait health misinformation sites suggested we should fear processed foods (300,000 engaged with “Scientists Warn People to Stop Eating Instant Noodles Due to Cancer and Stroke Risks”) while embracing other so-called natural cures without medical evidence, often sandwiched between ads for the very supplements proposed as miracles. “Ginger is 10,000x more effective at killing cancer than chemo,” reads the headline of an article that generated over 800,000 engagements. Papaya leaf juice, elderberry, dates, thyme, garlic, jasmine, limes, okra, and other herbs and exotic fruits were all offered this year as cures for cancer, diabetes, asthma and the flu.
But not all the year’s fake health news was hopeful; a more sinister message misinformed the topic of vaccines. Though vaccines are considered safe by the medical and the scientific community at large, a few well-funded anti-vaccination activists without medical training or expertise have promoted the false claim that vaccines cause harm and death. The three most popular creators of this kind of health misinformation in 2019 were Adams’ Natural News; Children’s Health Defense, an organization led by anti-vaccine activist Robert Kennedy Jr.; and Stop Mandatory Vaccination, a website led by self-described social media activist, Larry Cook. Their anti-vaccine content generated over a million engagements on our list.
The viral Children’s Health Defense articles misinterpret existing research to stoke fears that vaccines might be dangerous for children and pregnant women. Stop Mandatory Vaccination’s articles are accounts from parents who claim a baby’s death was the result of a vaccination. Many of those viral articles have been debunked with official, medically supported explanations that include SIDS, pneumonia and accidental asphyxiation.
A representative from Children’s Health Defense disputed their inclusion in the list in a statement to NBC News calling their articles “meticulously researched.” NBC News reached out to Adams and Cook but did not receive a response.
Facebook said it’s been working diligently to reduce the spread of health misinformation on its site. “While we have made progress this year, we know there is more work to do. We hope to continue our partnership with health organizations to expand our work in this space,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
Consequences of misinformation
The impact of health misinformation can be enormous.
The most common concerns among health professionals when it comes to misinformation online is compliance with health treatments or prevention efforts, said Nat Gyenes, who leads the Digital Health Lab at technology nonprofit Meedan and researches technology and health at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
“It can lead to vaccination levels below herd immunity, harmful impacts on minors whose parents are responsible for their health care and well-being, engaging in alternative or homeopathic treatments as a primary approach and only complying with necessary medical treatments at a time where effectiveness is decreased,” Gyenes said.
But like the more general “fake news” category, health misinformation spread online can also erode trust between people and institutions, doctors and patients, and citizens and governments.
“Of course, mistrust in health institutions and pharmaceutical companies can be legitimate, especially for communities that have been targeted by unethical research, for example, in the past,” Gyenes said. “Often, consumers of medical treatment-oriented conspiracies online are reoriented towards homeopathic treatment, and the regular ‘health maintenance’ that involves vitamin supplementation. Health misinformation online surrounding the effectiveness of homeopathy provides a welcoming, and costly, alternative that is compounded by conspiracy-related content and misinformation about treatments and cures.”
While the problem of health misinformation online is becoming clear, the solution is still being considered.
Fact checks for health misinformation are rare and can’t compete with the virality of the claims they seek to correct. Part of the solution, Gyenes said, will come from public health communities doing a better job at digital outreach, creating more engaging content, memes, visualizations and storytelling.
“False health information has existed since the beginning of the medical profession,” Gyenes said. “Focusing on mitigating the impacts of health misinformation is a productive way of thinking about the challenge.”
COMMENTARY: How comics can teach media literacy and help identify fake news – Global News
At this point, most of us know the drill when it comes to COVID-19: proper hand hygiene, mask wearing and social distancing.
But does setting fire to cell towers make your list? Probably not. A conspiracy theory linking 5G mobile technology to the COVID-19 outbreak has ignited fears worldwide, prompting just this response from a few individuals in Québec, who set ablaze seven mobile towers.
Although such destructive responses are rare, thousands of digital consumers have absorbed aspects of this falsehood, pushing fringe beliefs into the mainstream despite refutations from the World Health Organization and multiple agencies in Canada and the United States. What started as a conspiracy turned into a real crisis for the people who immediately believed what they’d heard.
My research focuses on critical media studies and ideological representations in news and popular culture. I regularly offer workshops to schools and community groups that engage the public in contemporary media literacy issues. My book, Won’t Get Fooled Again: A Graphic Guide To Fake News, helps readers identify the underlying purpose of the messages they receive and learn how to do basic research before accepting the validity of what’s being presented to them.
New study suggests social media feeds source of COVID-19 fake news
Dealing with fake news
As consumers, we need to learn how to filter content and become our own educators, editors and fact-checkers to ensure the information we act upon is trustworthy. In a constantly changing informational and political environment, it’s no wonder we often struggle to separate fact from fiction.
Articles, videos and other forms of content can generate large amounts of money for the websites that host these pieces. Most of their income comes from clicks on advertisements, so the more people who visit their sites, the better chances they have of boosting ad revenue. This feedback loop has led many publishers to lean on false information to drive traffic.
The threshold for making believable fake news has fallen as well. A conspiracy theorist, for example, can create a web page using a professional template with high-quality photos in just a few clicks. Once the content has been added, sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms requires even less effort.
These misinformation and fake-news campaigns amplify and circulate through false digital accounts using automated programs known as bots that use certain keywords to influence and impact conversations among like-minded clusters of people. The results can foment discord on hot-button Canadian policy issues — like immigration and refugees — possibly disrupting election outcomes.
Generating anxiety and undermining truth
Canadians are expressing anxiety about the social impact of fake news, with 70 per cent fearing it could affect the outcome of a federal election. The Pew Research Center warns that fake news may even influence the core functions of the democratic system and contribute to “truth decay.”
Dubious and inflammatory content can undermine the quality of public debate, promote misconceptions, foster greater hostility toward political opponents and corrode trust in government and journalism.
The effects of misinformation have been evident throughout the COVID-19 epidemic, with many citizens confused as to whether a mask will decrease the chances of spreading the infection. Similar tactics are being levelled against Black Lives Matter protesters, such as labelling them all as rioters when videos and photos show most behaving peacefully.
Conspiracy theories about the “Chinese virus,” amplified by politicians in Canada and the U.S., have fanned the flames of anti-Asian sentiments following the spread of COVID-19. Data from law enforcement and Chinese-Canadian groups has shown an increase in anti-Asian hate incidents in Canada since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who and how to trust
Aside from a few social media platforms that identify misleading content and provide a brief explanation, most information online or in print can appear factual. So how can we figure out which sources to trust?
As a sociologist who focuses on critical media studies, I formed focus groups and collected input from my students to create a resources to guide readers through identifying fake news. While regulation and legislation are part of the solution, experts agree we must take swift action to teach students how to seek verification before acting on fake news.
In my findings, students identified several reasons why media outlets post or re-publish fake news, including making mistakes, being short-staffed, not fact-checking and actively seeking greater viewership by posting fake news.
The students pointed to holistic media literacy and critical thinking training as the best responses. This finding runs counter to the tactics currently used by publishers and tech companies to label or “fact-check” disputed news.
One student summarized this mindset best: “As citizens and consumers, we have a responsibility to be critical. Don’t accept stories blindly. Hold those in power responsible for their actions!”
Getting multiple perspectives is a great way to expand our digest of viewpoints. Once we can see a story from more than one angle, separating truth from falsehood becomes much simpler.
At this point, I transitioned from recording perceptions of fake news to determining how to identify it. Providing students with information about the nature and agendas of fake news, in an immersive format, seemed to be a key step in engaging and cultivating their critical literacy capabilities. Information delivery was a key consideration.
Illustrating the narratives
Researchers have shown graphic narratives can accelerate cognition by focusing the reader’s attention on crucial information. Images clarify complex content, especially for visual learners. Comic books require readers to create meaning using multiple factors that helps develop a complex, multi-modal literacy.
A major goal of my book involves unpacking the motivations behind the news we consume. Consider why a particular person was interviewed: Who do they represent? What do they want us to believe? Is another point of view missing?
Won’t Get Fooled Again: A Graphic Guide to Fake News is the culmination of my research and the insights drawn from media literacy scholarship. This guide helps readers understand what fake news is, where it comes from, and how to check its accuracy.
If there’s one habit my students and I hope everyone will develop, it’s this: pause before sharing news on social media. Double-check anything that immediately sparks anger or frustration and, remember, fake news creators want a reaction, not thoughtful reflection.
How Donald Trump's Presidency Has Changed The Media – NPR
Kelowna woman learns lesson from public shaming on social media
A Kelowna woman wants others to know of the repercussions of inflammatory social media posts after an experience she had last week.
On Oct. 20, Shelley Hughes saw a man screaming and uttering threats near her home. She posted about it in a neighbourhood Facebook group saying the man looked like a known criminal in the area and a fair number of comments racked up. She later learned the man was actually a 16-year-old who was having a mental breakdown, she said.
“Things got a little bit out of control on the Facebook group,” Hughes said, adding that she got in touch with the teenager’s mother and learned about their story.
“We have to be mindful about what we post, including me, because I was participating in the rhetoric,” Hughes said. “Yes we do post to watch out for each other but we have to be clear. It was a lesson for everyone how quickly it can get out of hand.”
Hughes posted a follow up to her original post, explaining the family had fallen on hard times.
“We need to pull together,” she said. “We need to bring some compassion. It takes a village so let’s be this village.”
The Facebook group is meant to be a neighbourhood watch but sometimes the comments get out of hand, she said.
Her message is to be mindful of the facts before turning to social media.
“It can be used as a useful, positive tool but also in a very bad way,” Hughes said.
She hopes by sharing the story and the lesson she learned that others will follow suit. She said the community has been supportive when she posted a second time explaining the situation.
“Our community needs to get back to being that village and slamming people on social media is not the way to do it. Have I learned a lesson? I have. What do we do with a lesson? We learn from it and we respond to it,” Hughes said.
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