How To Spot Health Misinformation – Lori Skurbe

How To Spot Health Misinformation

 

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “misinformation is information that is false, inaccurate, or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time.” For clarity, there is misinformation and disinformation. 

Misinformation is not necessarily designed with ill intent but may be misrepresenting the facts. Disinformation is designed to fool the reader or viewer to get them to buy a product or service or convince them to change their mind about a topic for another’s gain (such as villainizing a particular food or making you think your diet is so terrible you need to buy their product, program or book to learn to “fix” it.). For this blog, we will use the word misinformation. 

With the popularity of social media, more and more people are online providing health information than ever before. This can be helpful if we are trying to learn more about a specific topic. The problem is there is an enormous amount of misinformation online that appears to be legitimate but is not. This misinformation is often packaged in ways that appear to be trustworthy – a spokesperson wearing a white lab coat and stethoscope, a slick, flashy website, believable and relatable testimonials, and eyepopping, sensationalizing headlines. 

This type of health misinformation usually:

  • Has no real evidence-based research to back up any claims, which is why they rely on testimonials or someone who looks like a doctor or scientist but may not be one. Sometimes the people giving health information have no formal education on the subject matter – but come across as experts.
  • Facts are often cherry-picked, graphs and charts are misleading, and subject matter is taken out of context to support a particular point of view
  • Relies on evoking strong emotional reactions from people usually fear, anger, outrage, and distrust.
  • Hints at conspiracy theories (ex: the food industry is poisoning us)
  • Aggressively marketing and selling products (such as nutritional supplements, cleanses, detoxes, etc.)
  • Offer a false dichotomy such as plant-based vs carnivore diets. Nutrition and health topics are very nuanced and there rarely is a black and white answer. Misinformation tries to oversimplify often complex topics.
  • High-energy delivery of information such as yelling or shouting.
  • Are too good to be true. Claims such as: “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days.” might sound great, but in reality, they are not realistic and could be dangerous.

 

The above are “red flags.” If you see any of these you should be skeptical of the information you are hearing, seeing, or reading.

How to make sure the health information you are looking at is legitimate and more accurate? Look for:

  • References to scholarly medical and science journals – look for PMID numbers 
  • The credentials of the person/people delivering the message, such as MD, DO, PhD, RDN, MS, MPH, etc.  Having these credentials is not foolproof, but it does help to make sure you are getting health information from an educated person in your field. 
  • Messages that recognize that science is always evolving as we learn more and keep an open mind. Messages that also encourage collaboration with other experts in the field and acknowledge there may be others who know more than they do.
  • Use of a professional tone when speaking – do not shout or use high-energy pitches.
  • Who or what might be sponsoring the information? Check to see if anyone is sponsoring the information being presented. Make sure the information is not coming from a company that is trying to sell you a product – a possible conflict of interest.

 

The above points indicate that the information you are being exposed to is more likely to be accurate.  Take a few minutes to make sure the health information you are reviewing does not have any of the above red flags and meets the criteria for more accurate information. If you aren’t sure if the health information you are reading is legitimate, try not to share the information with others. Sharing misinformation just spreads more misinformation and can lead to confusion and prolong effective treatment. It is wise to speak to your doctor or other credentialed healthcare professional if you have any specific questions regarding information, you find online and how it may apply to you.