We live in an era of instant information. The internet has revolutionized communication and changed the way we live. What’s more, people proactively select the information they want, and that’s created an era of instant sharing; we immediately share content, and sometimes content is shared without reading it thoroughly or doing any fact-checking.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all that information was factual? According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), falsehoods have been shown to spread faster and farther than accurate information, “Misinformation can have adverse effects in the real world, such as amplifying controversy about vaccines and propagating unproven cancer treatments.”
Misinformation (false information someone spreads because they believe it’s true) is so rampant that the World Health Organization (WHO) calls what we’re experiencing an “infodemic.” That includes disinformation (or information that’s spread deliberately to deceive people) and requires all of us to learn how to navigate.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says the spread of healthcare misinformation is a “serious public threat.” He issued a 22-page advisory on Building a Health Information Environment, calling for a national effort to fight misinformation and encouraging tech companies, healthcare workers, journalists, and everyday Americans to do more.
"Misinformation hasn't just harmed our physical health — it has also divided our families, friends, and communities," Murthy wrote. "The only way to address health misinformation is to recognize that all of us, in every sector of society, have a responsibility to act."
Much of the health misinformation was a problem before the pandemic. Still, it has become a top concern for healthcare providers, media platforms, and other officials due to its rapid spread, which has an increased effect on our personal health and on public health providers (per Becker’s Hospital Review). They report that misinformation in the media and the medical community is more common than you might think. For example, more than one-third (33%) of commonly read cancer treatment articles on social media contain misinformation that could potentially harm a patient’s treatment quality and even chances of survival. And a mere twelve people are responsible for 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media!
Rampant misinformation is raising concerns about the safety of doctors and healthcare workers, too. Medical facilities and hospitals across the country have expanded their security due to an increase in hostility. Per an AP News article, the barrage of misinformation has also caused workers to face animosity throughout their communities, prompting healthcare workers to change from hospital scrubs and other identifying clothing when they do their everyday tasks like grocery shopping.
“Health misinformation on social media urgently requires greater action from those working in public health research and practice,” says the NIH. So, it seems we all have a responsibility to prevent the spread of misinformation, but where do we start? Here are seven things you can do to help you identify false information, share info responsibly, and stop the spread of misinformation.
- Improve your fact-checking skills. Surgeon General Murthy suggests you verify questionable health information with trusted sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and exercise critical thinking when exposed to unverified claims. You should also look to more authoritative sites, like those with a .gov and .edu URL.
- Look beyond headlines. Often, headlines alone are intended to be provocative or even salacious. It’s essential to thoroughly read the content of an article before sharing regardless of what the headline mentions.
- Challenge your biases. We all have biases that can affect recruiting and more. Biases factor into how you view the world and how you interpret headlines or stories, so it’s good to question your reactions. Why did you react a certain way? Does the headline challenge your assumptions? Does it tell you what you want to hear? You’ll learn a lot about yourself when you do this.
- Use basic math. Untrustworthy sites or campaigns rightfully assume readers won’t take the time to fact-check them, so they often use statistics to make bogus claims. Do a simple math calculation or rough estimate, and you’ll likely spot the false data quickly.
- Note the author. Is it someone you can verify online to determine if they’re authentic and credible?
- Think about it before you share. According to Psychology Today, “If something you see online causes intense feelings, especially if that emotion is outrage, that should be a red flag not to share it.” Chances are, the headline was intended to short-circuit your critical thinking by playing on your emotions. Don’t fall for it.
- Think about the spread of misinformation the way you think about the spread of viruses. If you share something with your colleagues or family, a handful of them might share it, and before you know it, potentially harmful or dangerous information is everywhere.
With so much news and media available, many people consume information automatically, almost unconsciously – like knowing you drove home but not being able to recall the trip – which makes us far more susceptible to accepting false claims. We like what the WHO had to say about slowing the spread of misinformation and disinformation: just like we can protect against COVID-19 with hand washing, physical distancing, and masks, we can slow the spread of misinformation by practicing information hygiene.
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