Evaluate health information, misinformation and misinformation

Who can you believe?

Let’s face it, we all slow down to look when we’re driving through an accident. The possibility of seeing something strange or incredible is too alluring to resist. Would we like to be shocked, horrified and amazed? Tabloid editors and yellow reporters would say yes. For centuries, they have seduced us with outrageous, sensational and ridiculously ridiculous content.

At the beginning of the 19e century, the widespread use of the printing press made it easier for modern newspapers to increase their circulation by replacing “normal” news with scoops and expositories. People couldn’t get enough of the weird, the unbelievable and the fake. “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835, which affirmed the existence of an extraterrestrial lunar civilization, established The New York Sun as one of the most profitable tabloids of its time.

Clickbait relates to the concept of misleading advertisements and headlines designed to grab attention and trick users into following related online content. (Image: iStock.)

Obviously, “fake news” was not invented with the Trump presidency; it’s been going on for a long time. Newspaper editors Joseph Pulitzer (St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York world) and William Hearst (publisher of the largest American newspaper chain in the late 19e century) competed for readers through sensationalism, rumors and lies – a practice known as “yellow journalism”. Their incredulous “reporting” actually played a role in the conduct of the United States in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Now we have “Clickbait”, those digital headlines designed to trick and engage us with their outrageous claims. Every time we scour the internet or social media, we pick up public health advice, fact sheets, infographics, research, opinions, rumours, myths, lies, fiction, non -fiction, and more.

The World Health Organization and the United Nations have called this unprecedented information overload an “infodemic” and it is raging in health.

Misinformation and misinformation are rampant on health news websites, especially those linked to famous spokespersons. Disinformation is defined as false content shared with no harmful intent; disinformation is defined as false information that is knowingly created and shared and that often causes harm.

Although health information is easy to find, reliable health information is much more elusive. It is not easy to distinguish between reliable information, misinformation or misinformation. Below, I briefly review some general principles on how to evaluate health information available on the Internet. Hope this can help you find accurate information that you can use for your health.

Credibility of health information

Let’s start with a few questions you can ask yourself about a site’s credibility: What is the exact purpose of the site? Who manages the site? What are the references of the author or authors producing the information?

If the purpose of the website is to sell a product or service, be skeptical because the main purpose is to encourage you to buy products, not to present quality information that you can use. Some websites are created by individuals or a group of people to share their opinions or experiences. They may mean well, but the information they present will likely only support their opinions, not the facts. The so-called “evidence” to back up their claims are usually anecdotes and/or testimonials. This type of content may seem to apply to everyone; it’s not! Even if the opinion comes from an expert – a personal trainer, dietitian, celebrity, or someone with a medical degree – it’s just an opinion, not a 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 assumptions, observations, measurements, statistics and analysis, and conclusions.

An image of Marion Nestlé from an article on food policy

Sample of foodpolitics.com’s ‘Industry Funded Study of the Week’.

Other important credibility issues relate to funding. Who pays for this website? If it is supported by advertisements, check that these advertisements are clearly identified as such. Beware of advertisements designed to look like neutral health information, when in fact they are designed to sell, promote or influence.

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

Be very careful if a company is paying for the site; health information is sure to favor this company and its products. Also, if a health information site features “industry-funded” research, always be skeptical. The information will most certainly support the interests of the finance company.

Currency

Timeliness refers to the quality and timeliness of information. High-quality information does not favor one treatment over another and always presents balanced facts based on peer-reviewed research. “health scam.”

To assess the quality of a website’s information, find out where the information comes from: Are there links to peer-reviewed research and/or medical experts or health authorities? Check if the information is up-to-date: Does the site present the dates when the information was written, revised or updated? Are there links or citations to original peer-reviewed research? Is the information cited correctly or not at all? Does the site identify conflicts of interest of the authors or creators of the site? Often, industry-funded news is biased, leading to misinformation and/or misinformation.

Also, it is important to check if the site regularly updates its information. Remember how quickly research and information about COVID shaped public policy?

Find quality health information

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

Below I have compiled a list of websites that I am sure you can trust. I regularly visit many of these sites when looking for current research and health-related details.

  • Federal Trade Commission Consumer Health Information
    Learn to decode advertisements for products that may promise excessive cures and results »
  • MedlinePlus Health Fraud
    Highlights healthcare fraud resources and provides guidance on where to report fraud
  • National council against health fraud
    Nonprofit health agency focusing on health misinformation, fraud, and linking to publications, position papers, and more.
  • A community toolkit to tackle health misinformation
    Comprehensive Office of the Surgeon General Web Portal
  • Evaluating Health Information on the Internet: A Tutorial from the National Library of Medicine
    National Library of Medicine Interactive Consumer Tutorial
  • Find and evaluate online resources
    From the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (also in Spanish)
  • Health Information on the Web: Finding Reliable Information
    Trusted medical advice from the American Academy of Family Physicians (also in Spanish)
  • Health Literacy: Health Topic MedlinePlus
    From the National Library of Medicine, (also in Spanish)
  • Understanding health risks: improve your chances of being healthy
    A monthly newsletter from the National Institutes of Health
  • Food in the news: what to believe?
    Trusted information from Harvard’s School of Public Health
  • Cancer Information on the Internet
    From the American Cancer Society
  • Reliable health information online
    From the National Institute for Human Genome Research
  • Cancer resources you can trust
    From the National Cancer Institute, (also in Spanish)
  • Know the Science: Health Facts
    From the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
  • Online medical information: is it reliable?
    From the National Institute on Aging (also in Spanish)
  • Blue areas
    How to apply research from the world’s oldest cultures, great resource
  • Food policy
    From Marion Nestle, great expert in nutritional research, excellent resource
  • NutritionFacts.org
    From Michael Greger, MD, leading medical expert in health and nutrition; includes health and nutrition topics with new videos and articles uploaded almost daily. It’s a great resource.

References

  • Chou, Sylvia WY, Gaysynsky, A., Cappella, JN, “Where do we go from here: Health misinformation on social media.” American Journal of Public Health. 2020;110(S3):S273-S275.
  • Gage-Bouchard, EA, et al., “Is cancer news shared 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, December 18, 2016. [Online].
  • Vosoughi, S., et al., “The Spread of Real and Fake News Online.” Science. 2018;359(6380):1146.
  • Wang, Y., et al., “Systematic review of the literature on the spread of health-related misinformation on social media.” Social sciences and medicine. 2019;240:112552.

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