The dangers of fake medical news
In today’s busy news environment, with 24-hour story cycles, social media platforms, and a wealth of information, fake medical news spreads like the flu virus. Even serious topics like cancer, heart disease, and drug addiction are not safe from becoming fake news items, with misinformation disguised as facts. When you search on Google for the term “cancer treatment”, you’ll get millions of pages of articles and websites on the topic. A YouTube search reveals a large number of videos claiming to share information about “cancer treatment”.
“I am very concerned about the harm that false news can do to patients, as well as to society at large,” says Dr. Murray Markman, chief of medicine and science at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. ® (CTCA). “I also think that the credibility of the medical establishment and the scientific establishment is damaged when people finally think they can’t trust what they read.”
A torrent of false stories
Fake medical records are all over the internet. They contain inaccurate and misleading information. Misinformation compiled to look like real news is so alarming that the US Food and Drug Administration recently published a list of 187 bogus “cures” for cancer that consumers should avoid. Products range from herbal extracts and teas to pills and so-called anti-cancer creams. Manufactured medical news isn’t limited to the Internet: fringe publications disguised as medical journals and filled with “news” about fake studies and developments are also popular.
“Today there are hundreds of magazines on the Internet, and they’re all great, and you don’t know if you can trust them or not,” says Dr. Markman. “I don’t think anyone should trust the information because it’s written in a particular medical journal or because the United States government says so. We should be skeptical, we should ask questions. We should all ask questions.”
The popularity of fake news probably wouldn’t exist if people didn’t believe it and didn’t share it. Learning how to spot fake medical news requires a great deal of critical thinking. The American Council on Science and Health says there’s no easy way to distinguish fact from fiction, but the agency lists some red flags to look for:
- The article is based on research from an almost unknown journal.
- The author draws strong conclusions from one study.
- The article takes huge and unproven leaps in describing the conclusions of a particular study.
- The article is from many environmental, health or food fad websites.
- The article looks like a press release.
- The article does not attempt to explain the study’s methodology or use technical terms that require a level of analysis and understanding.
Changes in social networks
Many organizations are trying to stop, or at least slow down the flow of false information. For example, Facebook has placed limits and ratings on what users can share on the social media platform. Facebook users will now receive an alert when independent fact-checkers consider a story to be inaccurate or false. These groups will verify the news using a standardized set of ethical guidelines. If a story is flagged as misinformation, it will be categorized as “disputed” when it appears in news sources, along with a link to stories that explain why the news is likely to be false.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology has published a list of myths and facts about cancer to debunk their falsity, offering readers a tool that can help verify dubious stories about cancer. “The bottom line is that fake news has real consequences,” says Dr. Markman. “Especially in the field of cancer, where people are always looking for hope, looking for promising ideas, they are potentially vulnerable.”