Article at a glance
Medical misinformation spreads quickly through social media, search engines and online retail sites.
Social media features that reward the user (“liking” and “commenting”) contribute to the spread of misinformation.
You can help stop harmful misinformation by working with community groups, verifying information and talking to family and friends.
Misinformation on COVID-19 includes false stories that vaccines contain microchips, impair fertility or give you COVID-19.
You can spot medical misinformation online by asking questions, such as “What date was this content created and who wrote it?”
Medical misinformation, meaning information that’s not factually accurate, has recently become more widespread. In this age of the Internet and social media, where inaccuracies abound, we’ve become especially vulnerable to misinformation. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the spread of false information and its consequences worse. Misinformation has made Americans distrustful of public health measures and has slowed efforts to get the people in our country fully vaccinated. It’s created confusion and harmed our health. It’s caused divisions in families, communities, and in the country as a whole. Interestingly, research has found that the age group most likely to believe misinformation is younger — but it’s older adults who are most affected by COVID-19, and older adults are also more likely to share medical falsehoods. To keep untrue information from spreading, we can start by learning how it spreads, who spreads it, and what we can do to stop it.
Where and how does misinformation spread?
Medical misinformation spreads rapidly through social media, search engines, and online retail sites. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that misinformation is generally framed in a way that evokes some sort of emotional response. It might heighten anxiety or fear, creating a sense of urgency to share the information with others.
Second, certain features on social media, such as “liking” or “commenting” can encourage or incentivize people to share misinformation. These features reward engagement over accuracy and allow emotionally loaded information to spread quickly.
The rapid spread of information on social media can also be attributed to the Internet’s memory of recently viewed content. In other words, if you click on content online (an article, a video, etc.), you’re more likely to receive similar content at the top of your social media news feed. So if you recently read or “liked” an article that contains medical misinformation, articles with similar information might appear more often.
Additionally, it has become more difficult to find accurate information online, because the number of outlets people go to for information has increased vastly.
One factor that contributes to the spread of untruthful information includes societal division and distrust — for example, someone who has experienced racism within the healthcare system may be more skeptical about where to find accurate information. Another cause that leads to misinformation is political ideology. It’s actually been found that those with certain political leanings are more vulnerable to misinformation.
How to survive the medical misinformation mess and stop the spread
Community leaders, health professionals, educators, media organizations and governments are trying to help stop the spread of medical misinformation. You too can play a role in combating medical falsehoods. You can:
Verify whether the information you’re posting or sending to family or friends is accurate and from a trustworthy source.
Talk to friends and family about the issue of health misinformation. Try to engage with empathy and without passing judgment.
Work with community groups to tackle the problem of misinformation. You can, for example, invite a health professional to speak about vaccinations at a senior living facility nearby.
According to the American Psychological Association, we could also use a strategy called “pre-bunking” to fight misinformation. Pre-bunking involves exposing people to bits of misinformation and explaining why they might be false. They may then be less likely to believe the information from those sources later on.
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) is working with organizations to combat the spread of misinformation in senior populations, especially in communities of color. They’ve found that one of the best ways to reach older adults is to talk to their entire families about the threat of misinformation and how to identify it.
Common COVID-19 medical misinformation
Medical misinformation has been around for a long time, although lately, between the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread use of social media, it’s reached new heights. It’s so prevalent that some patients who are dying of the virus refuse to believe in its reality. A July 2020 study involving 1,000 U.S. adults found that 28% of those surveyed thought the vaccine was a bio-weapon created by the Chinese government, and 15% felt the virus had been created by the pharmaceutical industry.
Common COVID-19 medical misinformation has included falsehoods about the vaccine, mask-wearing and physical distancing. This has contributed to the use of unproven and harmful treatments. It’s even led to violence against healthcare workers, airline staff, and those who enforce public health regulations. Research shows that even brief exposure to vaccine misinformation could dissuade people from getting vaccinated.
Some common and pervasive misconceptions about COVID-19 include:
The vaccine was developed too quickly without proper research and it’s not safe.
Vaccines contain harmful ingredients.
Vaccines contain microchips.
The COVID-19 vaccine can negatively affect fertility.
Natural immunity (after infection) is better than vaccine immunity.
COVID-19 vaccines can give you the virus.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is not safe.
While some of the above statements are widely believed and amplified by the spread of medical misinformation, they are, medically speaking, not founded in truth.
How to spot medical misinformation
We know that medical misinformation is abundant on the world wide web, but how can you spot it? You can start with this checklist of questions to evaluate whether or not the information is accurate. Questions you can ask might include:
When was it made? Videos and articles older than one year may not be up-to-date, because medical information is always changing and evolving.
Who made it? If there’s no source cited or you haven’t heard of the source, the information may not be trustworthy. It’s best if the information comes from government, education, or reputable organization sites.
Is it realistic? Be careful of sources that offer miracle cures and natural remedies. Here’s a rule of thumb: if it sounds too good to be true, it’s usually not true.
Is it balanced? If the source doesn’t mention risks or other treatment options, it’s probably biased.
Health misinformation can cause undue harm on a large scale, in senior populations and beyond. In the late 1990s, we saw a badly designed study claiming that vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) caused autism. This “study” contributed to lower immunization rates and consequently, deaths from these easily preventable diseases. Even after the study was retracted, MMR immunization dropped and the community at large suffered. In South Africa, widespread “AIDS denialism” has contributed to the deaths of more than 330,000 people between the years 2000 and 2005. Misinformation about cancer, heart disease and other diseases, may prevent people from seeking potentially life-saving treatment. There’s no doubt that medical misinformation is a danger on the societal and individual level. It is, in a sense, its own type of virus, easily spread from person to person, leaving casualties in its wake.
If you’re worried that you or a loved one could fall prey to medical misinformation or if you have specific questions about vaccines or other treatments, feel free to reach out to your primary care doctor or other trusted health worker who can help you separate fact from fiction.