The Internet is a powerful tool for finding information and a popular resource for learning about health, with 80 percent of people using the Internet to search for health information. While this access can empower people to take their health into their own hands, it can also rapidly spread inaccurate, misleading and potentially harmful information, otherwise referred to as misinformation.
Misinformation runs rampant in conversations about COVID-19, diet and nutrition, vaccinations and chronic illnesses like heart disease and cancer. Some of the most popular examples of health misinformation include the claim that eating apricot seeds can cure cancer and that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. Both claims have been refuted by scientists, yet 39 percent of surveyed Americans still believe that alternative medicine like herbs and vitamins alone can cure cancer and 10 percent believe vaccines cause autism.
In early 2020, false claims that ingesting disinfectant products could cure or prevent a COVID-19 infection circulated on the Internet and media. Soon after, a CDC survey found that 39 percent of respondents heeded the advice and dangerously misused household disinfectants – washing food with bleach, applying cleaners directly to skin or even inhaling or consuming disinfectants – with the goal of preventing COVID-19.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explained that misinformation can also cause hesitancy, confusion and distrust among the public. In its worst cases, this distrust can lead to preventable deaths.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, health misinformation has led people to resist wearing masks in high-risk settings. It’s led them to turn down proven treatments and to choose not to get vaccinated,” said Murthy. “This has led to avoidable illnesses and death. Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives.”
Why Does Misinformation Spread?
In many cases, those who spread misinformation don’t know the claims are false or misleading. Sometimes it’s done with malicious intent (typically referred to as disinformation), however many people who share inaccurate health information do so with the intention of helping others.
The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General’s toolkit for addressing health misinformation outlines some of the main reasons we can be tempted to share misinformation:
- We like to feel “in the know.” It’s exciting to stumble across information others may not know yet and can be tempting to share it with our community.
- We want to protect people we care about. We may see a post and assume the safest option is to share it “just in case” it can help someone, even if we have not yet fact-checked it.
- We seek explanations for the unexplainable. There can be a lot of uncertainty in health topics and sometimes misinformation is presented in a way that fills gaps or makes sense of that uncertainty.
It’s possible our psychology makes us more vulnerable to misinformation as well. False messages can be crafted to evoke an emotional response, can be presented in clearer terms than scientific sources and can confirm our preconceived biases and beliefs. All of these factors play a role in persuasion and can make inaccurate information appear more believable.
Use the health misinformation checklist before you share information. Before sharing, did you:
- Check the CDC or local public health department website to confirm whether there is any information about the claim being made?
- Ask a credible health care professional such as your doctor or nurse if they have any additional information?
- Type the claim into a search engine to see if it has been verified by multiple credible sources?
- Look at the “About Us” page on the website to see if you can trust the source?
Common Types of Misinformation
Misinformation is not always easy to spot, and sometimes is not entirely false; it can be true information that lacks proper context or only tells part of the story. Some common types of misinformation to watch out for include:
- Websites that look professional, yet contain sensationalized, misleading headlines designed to make us click on them.
- Quotations that have been altered to change or misrepresent what the person said.
- Cherry-picked statistics chosen specifically to support someone’s argument, but that don’t tell the whole story of the data.
- Misleading graphs or diagrams that look official but lack context.
- Use of visual cues like wearing a white coat or stethoscope to feign credibility.
What You Can Do
Misinformation can influence people to make decisions that may harm their health and can undermine public health efforts, so it’s important to learn how to identify misinformation and stop its spread. Skepticism is one of the strongest tools we have in this fight. Do your own research using credible sources and question what you see on the Internet before you share it with others.
The Surgeon General also recommends having conversations within your community about misinformation and provides guidance on how to approach those discussions with empathy and respect. Check out the health misinformation toolkit for more information.