top of page

Fake News and How to Spot Them

Electronic media is encumbered with health information these days, which lack credibility and considered as potentially harmful by a medical professional, scientists and academics. Many times, exaggerations and overamplifications spread propagandas, which negatively influence people. Identifying the patterns of good and bad health information can positively help to make informed choices.

In 2013, The World Economic Forum described "digital wildfires" in our hyper-connected world as one of the top three global health risks. Their report highlighted that, despite the benefits of living in a connected world, there is an immense risk of the viral spread of intentionally or unintentionally misleading health information. The medical establishment and available evidence are unanimous that vaccinations work, and that their value lies in mass uptake. For example, once measles uptake exceeds 95%, even those not vaccinated are adequately protected. Nevertheless, the anti-vaccination movement has grown in recent years and is cited as a factor in alarming spikes in measles cases in the US, France and Italy. In Europe, there were 64,946 measles cases between November 2017 and October 2018 – over twice the figure for the whole of 2017. Moreover, in England alone, there were 913 cases of laboratory-confirmed measles between 1 January and 31 October 2018, which was three times higher than in 2017. "Irresponsible" anti-vaccination messages circulated on social media platforms may be contributing to an increase in measles cases, and a decline in vaccination take-up, the head of NHS England has warned. In a recent U.S. survey, 33% of respondents indicated that they knew as much or more than doctors about the causes of autism! If this is the scenario in the more educated and economically privileged part of the world, then how easy it is to influence the less informed?

It is not only at a personal level anymore. Upsettingly giant companies are taking the opportunity of these platforms to increase their sales! Imagine a heart medicine claiming to reduce the risk of heart attack by half, but it was tested in a population with a heart atta ck risk of 2 percent. After taking the drug, the risk dropped to 1 percent. The drug company then publishes an advertisement that argues its new product reduces the risk of heart attack by 50 percent and gets it viral. That is semi-true, but hardly the whole story. The risk may have dropped by half relative to the placebo group, but the absolute risk of a heart attack only changed by 1 percentage point. So, assuming certain circumstances are true, the results are probably not worth reporting.

Now, how to swim out of the undercurrent pulling us into the sea of misguided, misleading and mistaken information? In our report, we shall generate evidence by computational first-hand research ( literature review in groups) to put together a taxonomy of good/bad health information as well to help understand the virality in the field of vaccination, cancer treatment and nutrition during pregnancy. Once we have identified indicators and trends which run throughout each group (good and bad), we shall try to theorise about how these indicators might contribute to the virality of an article. We are partnered with "Logically" who provides the public, private companies and public institutions with tools, like Logically News, that allow them to navigate today's digital media environment with certainty, confidence and clarity.

There is an urgent need for real-time monitoring of 'fast-data' for the publicly available content being shared on popular social networking and news media sites. This research will definitely be of help to identify the trends and predictors of such information triangulating evidence from different health issues.

Further reading

About the Authors

Editor Nusrat Khan

Nusrat is a PhD student from the University of Cambridge.

Researcher Haowen Kwan

Haowen is a 5th year medical student from the University of Cambridge with a keen interest in public health and healthcare policy. He previously conducted a literature review of the sugar tax and is currently investigating travel behaviour in Africa and the Caribbean.

Researcher Lily-Rose Sharry

Lily-Rose is a HSPS student at the University of Cambridge with an interest in the sociology of health and medicine. She is currently writing a dissertation on the medicalisation and resistance of medicalisation of treating problematic substance use in Coventry.

Researcher Tom Birdseye

Tom is a 2nd year geography student from Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. His research interest lies mainly in the inequalities of health information; looking at the differences in information for developed/developing nations and how this information is received and understood by the public. He is also currently in the middle of researching the effectiveness of pedestrianised city centres regarding the benefits to health and local businesses.

Researcher Olivia Shallcross

Olivia is a 5th year medical student from the University of Cambridge.

Researcher Oieshi Saha

Oieshi is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page