One of the most devastating results of a free Internet is, undoubtedly, the proliferation of fake news. The recent U.S. Presidential Elections are embroiled in controversy ever since they happened because many critics and investigators still believe that Donald Trump’s victory was fueled by the propaganda of fake news. But a more sinister concern is the constant rise of fake health news online, especially social media.
In 2016, 20 most popularly shared articles on Facebook had the word “cancer” in their titles, and more than half were based on dubious claims and misinformation, according to a startling study by the Independent. The volume of the shares of these stories is phenomenal, with the most popular ones being liked and shared by millions of people. This means there is an excellent chance that something related to cancer that you read in 2016 could well have been nothing more than quackery posing as science.
Does dandelion weed cure cancer?
Let’s say an article titled, “Dandelion weed can boost your immune system and cure cancer,” with a whopping 1.4 million likes and shares pops up on your news feed. You are free to read it, just like any other material that is available online, but here’s what you need to keep in mind: Dandelion weed does not cure cancer or boost your immune system or enhance your performance.
That’s right. It’s nothing but a wild claim, but even more disturbing is the fact that Google search about Dandelion weed and its alleged cancer healing properties would reveal not one, but hundreds of similarly dubious articles on miracle healing powers of the Dandelion weed. Sadly, stories of this sort may be created by people who only want to gain targeted traffic by featuring a popular keyword on their website and who are not worried about the consequences of spreading misinformation.
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Schools should now teach kids how to tell fact from fiction on the Internet because news literacy is more important now than ever. There is definitely “real” fake health news out there. In fact, consistent publishers of false health claims and news exist, churning out regular articles based on nothing more than pseudoscience.
One such notorious example is that of Naturalnews.com. The website often features outrageous headlines such as “A radish-like plant from India proven to effectively relieve depression symptoms.” These are nothing more than click bait and make people consume more and more of these dangerously misleading stories. But, controlling these platforms is a gargantuan task as the Internet is filled with thousands of them. Patrolling them is not easy but there are ways to avoid getting affected by such unreliable stories passing off as professional medical advice.
Tips for identifying fake health news
Here’s are some things you need to know in order to identify fake health news and not fall victim to it.
- Consider the reliability of the publication.
Nearly all of the fake health news online is generated by sources that do not have much, if any, credibility. On the other hand, trusted publishing platforms like the New York Times, the Independent, the Washington Post, and Forbes are run by established media houses and have been around for years. They all enjoy good reputations and will not deliberately mislead you by publishing fake stories, including fake health stories.
Here’s a rule that you need to remember:
Never believe anything generated by info hubs that do not have a good reputation.
- Remember, breakthroughs are significant events.
If someone ever finds a cure for a dangerous disease like cancer or HIV, it will likely be a worldwide event covered by every major news outlet out there. If an obscure website claims that there has been such a breakthrough and there is no such news elsewhere, pass on it.
- Just because it seems like it could be true, doesn’t mean it is.
Ever heard the saying “too good to be true”? Headlines are expected to drive more and more engagement, but science is not about exciting captions or titles, it’s about claims being backed by rigorous scientific agenda and years of research. No matter how convincing something seems,
If it’s not being supported by evidence, then it’s nothing more than a hoax.
- Check out the credibility of research journals that are cited
Research is only credible when its peer-reviewed. A lot of fake health news rides on the back of research journals whose claims are not scrutinized, recognized, or given approval by a wider scientific community. Run a quick Google search to check whether the cited source for a claim is a peer-reviewed journal or a complicit arrangement to perpetuate fake news even more astutely.
- Myths and hoaxes
If you ever come across an article titled, “How knuckle-cracking could be leading you towards arthritis,” then do make sure that you try and find out whether there is a link between knuckle cracking and arthritis. If you do not find any information backed by scientific data, then continue cracking those knuckles and read your favorite book.
- Do not support conspiracy theories
Doctors and governments have no motive in trying to hide a cure from the general population. So, if you come across a conspiracy theory saying that “The government has been trying to hide this cure for HIV since 1970,” you can bet it’s a lie and you should not go near it.
- The number of shares is not an indicator of truth
Just like in the dubious story of how dandelion weed cures cancer and its stratospheric popularity, share numbers are never a good indicator of the truthfulness of a claim. If a health story that you come across has millions of likes, comments, and shares but doesn’t include rigorous scientific scrutiny, then it’s as false as false can be.
Report the fake news and let others know
After you have established the fact that something is fake health news and you have steered clear of it, make sure that others do not fall prey to it through two ways.
Firstly, report the fake news if you see it on social media platforms like Facebook, which now allows you to do such a thing. Secondly, make sure that you share the scientific claims and evidence you have gathered against the fake health news across your personal social media handles and in the comment threads beneath those very articles.
In our fight against the dangerous practice of fake health news, it’s imperative that we not only protect ourselves but also inform as many people as we possibly can in order to ensure a safer and healthier world for generations to come.