Health information vs misinformation: how to tell the difference
By Meredith Bailey
They cause infertility. They contain microchips. They haven’t been properly tested – these are just some of the dubious claims about COVID-19 vaccines that have spread on social media and the internet in 2021. While health misinformation – misleading, incorrect or false information – thrived during the pandemic, it didn’t start with the coronavirus or the vaccines designed to fight it.
From unproven cancer cures to misconceptions about the effects of fluoridated water to “miracle” weight loss supplements, health misinformation has a long history in the United States and its prevalence has consequences around the world. real. Misinformation not only creates disagreements and mistrust, but it can also cause people to make decisions that are bad for their own health and well-being as well as that of the public.
Believing that something that turns out to be health misinformation can happen to any of us – how can you tell the difference between credible content and content that isn’t?
Think like a librarian
Before spending too much time on the how, it’s important to understand the what: Health misinformation comes in two forms. The main difference between the two lies in the intention.
“Some information is just plain wrong—essentially propaganda—that is put out on purpose to mislead people in favor of a program,” says Andrea Ball, MLS, MSIM, research and education librarian at the MultiCare Institute for Research & Innovation. “The second type involves unintentional misinterpretation, and this often happens, especially when someone writing or reporting a health article misunderstands the statistics, inflates the impact of something, or takes information out of their context.”
Health information comes to us through many different sources and platforms, and it’s not always easy to weed out outright false information or content that contains an element of truth but draws the wrong conclusions.
The following tips can help you think like a librarian – in other words, apply a critical lens to what you read and hear in order to avoid misinformation and make accurate, informed decisions about your health.
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If health-related content elicits feelings of fear or outrage or other strong emotions, step back and consider the author’s intent. Is the goal simply to inform or to provoke a reaction?
“People tend to form much faster and stronger opinions based on emotion than fact, and those who intentionally spread misinformation, like anti-vaccine groups, know this,” says Gretchen Lasalle, MD, family physician at MultiCare Rockwood Clinic and author of the book “Let’s talk about vaccines.” “They will often use emotionally charged language, titles and images in order to trigger an emotional response.”
The ultimate goal may be to use your emotional response to:
- Make you buy a product
- Drive website traffic or increase engagement through likes, clicks and shares
- Intensify the spread of misconceptions such as COVID-19 vaccines being dangerous
Beware of overstatement and sensational headlines
Phrases like “breakthrough” or “groundbreaking” or “cures cancer” can be red flags that a piece of content isn’t fact-based. Breakthroughs don’t happen very often. Scientific progress tends to be more gradual. If a breakthrough in the treatment of a disease occurred, it would be widely reported in major media outlets, such as The New York Times, NBC News, or NPR. If you read a “breakthrough” in a health newsletter or on an obscure website and nowhere else, it’s probably a misrepresentation.
Beware of conspiracy theories
“Some intentionally misleading content plays on people’s distrust of government and the pharmaceutical industry,” says Dr. Lasalle. “These stories will often take a slice of truth and then embellish or twist it to serve their own agenda.”
For example, take the persistent rumor that Bill Gates was putting microchips (tiny electrical circuits that can send and receive information) into COVID-19 vaccines to track people in their daily lives, a topic Dr. Lasalle discusses in his Blog.
Here is a seed of truth that was probably used to propagate the microchip lie: The Gates Foundation supports research to build technology that would help developing countries better track and document vaccine distribution, as many of these countries lack adequate public health tools and resources. However, the technology does not involve microchips and is not currently used for any vaccine.
Lesson? Content that relies on conspiratorial thinking to make a point is probably not legitimate.
Check credentials, reputation
Just because someone qualifies as a doctor does not mean they have the required expertise to talk about a particular health-related topic. For example, a Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine may be a reference for an article on spine or neck pain, but is not an ideal source for information on infectious disease or cancer.
“It’s always a good idea to consult someone who is making health claims, especially if those claims seem outlandish or wrong in some way,” says Dr. Lasalle. “Check their degree – is it PhD or MD or neither? Is their degree related to the field they are talking about? Also, see what the comment is – this person belongs Does she belong to legitimate medical circles or is she a fringe thinker Asking these types of questions can help you determine someone’s credibility.
Know what to look for in research studies and articles advertising studies
Health-related content may frequently reference research studies. How do you know if these articles and the studies themselves are trustworthy?
“If it’s a story about a study, it should say when and where the study was published,” says Ball. “It’s especially important to pay attention to the date – sometimes misleading stories will refer to old studies and rehash them as if it were a sensational new story.”
Also be wary of news stories that reference pre-print articles, a trend that has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to quickly deliver scientific information to the public. Preprints are drafts of academic papers that have not undergone peer reviewa rigorous process where a group of experts verifies the validity and quality of an article before it is published.
Studies that have or are currently undergoing peer review will be listed in pubmed.gov, the world’s largest database of biomedical literature. To visit clinicaltrials.gov search for information on clinical studies financed by private and public funds.
Turn to reliable sources and sites for health information
Do you know where to turn when looking for credible health information?
In general, disease-specific organizations, such as the American Heart Association, or university-affiliated sites are good places to start. Government entities, such as the Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention as good as National Institutes of Health also contain a wealth of information.
Another ideal source is medlineplus.gov. On this site, search for a particular disease, condition or medication and you will receive a list of links to sites that have been verified to be accurate. Be careful when watching health-related podcasts or videos that are not sponsored by leading medical institutions or associated with leading medical experts.
If you are unsure of the credibility of a site or source, talk to your provider. You can also ask a local librarian.
“That’s what we do every day – dig into the information. We know what sources are available and what’s legit,” Ball says. “We can’t give you health advice, but we’re happy direct you to the right information.