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How to Spot Health Misinformation Online

You’d think, as a seasoned health journalist, I’d be immune to health news fake outs. However, even I am capable of being duped. Recently, I came across a website that looked professional and had a “.org” at the end of its URL. Turns out I couldn’t find a single source that backed the website’s claims. Peddling health misinformation is not a new phenomenon, but the internet and the influence of social media have caused it to spread like — well, a virus.

“Digital technologies enable misinformation to spread much more quickly and have a much wider reach,” says Anna Gaysynsky, a health communications researcher. “The costs of producing and disseminating information are much lower than they used to be. That’s good in terms of increasing access to good, accurate information, but when these same sorts of mechanisms are leveraged to spread misinformation, that’s obviously very concerning.”

So what’s the average health consumer to do? While there are no hard and fast rules, here are some clues that an online source might be a little shady.

Sloppy design

Often sites with false health information scream “cheesy.” 

“If it uses all caps and has a hundred exclamation points and spelling mistakes, that might be a clue that it’s maybe not the most credible information,” says Gaysynsky. 

However, a nicely designed, typo-free page does not guarantee the information is accurate, nor does its extension. Dot gov (.gov) is safe because only government agencies can use it, but other common extensions — .com .org, and .edu — are not proof of authority.

“If it’s .edu, then it comes from a university,” says Francesca Bolla Tripodi, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Library and Information Science. “But that doesn’t mean all the information’s great.” For example, faculty can upload papers from their students, but those might not be the most reliable source of information. Anyone can register a .org domain, but even a real 501(c)(3) nonprofit may not necessarily be trustworthy. 

Inflammatory language

A legitimate health information website or social media post will present the facts without bias. It will not try to play on your emotions or alarm you. Signs that a source has an agenda — political, financial or otherwise — include inflammatory language or images that are emotionally provocative, says Gaysynsky. “Are they just presenting information or are they trying to scare you or make you angry?”

Social media especially can lead you down a dark path. Unlike when you actively search for something on the internet, social media relies on passive engagement. Once you follow an influencer, you may be constantly bombarded with recommendations to follow others.

Last year, the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that following wellness influencers on Instagram could lead you to progressively more hardline anti-vaccine content. “Maybe you’re just looking for dieting advice,” says Gaysynsky, “but the recommendation algorithms might push you into something that you weren’t searching for to begin with.”

The promise of a cure

“Anything that promises a cure for something that is incurable is a huge red flag,” says Tripodi. “For example, there is no cure for autism. But if you Google ‘autism cure,’ you’ll get a lot of nonevidence-based practices claiming to be cures, some of which can be extremely harmful to yourself or your children.”

Tripodi says the first words you put into a search bar can make all the difference. “If you’re typing ‘cure’ for a disease that doesn’t have one, chances are the internet will find you one, so starting points are really important for driving your end. Entering ‘autism treatment’ or ‘autism therapy’ are very different from ‘cure’.”

Now that you know what to look for, here’s how to make sure you’re not being duped:

Give the site a once-over

The National Library of Medicine offers a tutorial comparing a legitimate website and a deceptive one. 

The “About Us” page is a good place to start. First of all, does the site have one, and if it does, who exactly is “us”? A fake site is likely to be vague (e.g., “a group of people devoted to heart health”), whereas a legitimate site will list actual people, their job titles and affiliations.

Get off the page and check sources

Tripodi recommends getting off the suspect page as quickly as possible and opening a new tab so you can “use the internet to check the internet.”

Your goal is to find other vetted sources that are providing the same information. 

It’s important to find other people that are saying the same thing, in different words.

“Are you getting other people backing up the information [in their own words],” says Tripodi, “or is it content that’s been cut and pasted over and over again?”

There are also lots of organizations dedicated to fact-checking health information. Missouri’s St. Louis Community College Libraries has a thorough list of reputable fact-checking sites for checking the accuracy of health and political coverage in news media, as well as information online overall.

Check the date

The sheer quantity of information online, plus the fact that everything is hyperlinked,

means that articles and videos often stay up indefinitely. Knowing when something was posted can offer important context. 

Tripodi did a study looking at a Facebook group that downplayed the threat of COVID-19. “They were posting a video of Anthony Fauci when he went on 60 Minutes, where he said masks weren’t needed,” she says. “Well, that was two months into this pandemic, when we didn’t have PPE for doctors and nurses. And that video is still on YouTube. YouTube has put up a small disclaimer, but if you post the link onto Facebook, all you see is the video.”

Talk to your doctor

If you’re still confused and skeptical, check in with your doctor, who is, after all, a real human being with medical training, not governed by keywords and algorithms.*

*While there have been reports of medical professionals spreading false information about COVID-19, the vast majority of reputable healthcare providers follow CDC guidelines.

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