Most Health News Stories on Facebook Are False or Misleading

Most Health News Stories on Facebook Are False or Misleading

Do you have a lot of friends that share health-related articles? Do you ever wonder how factual they were?

What’s worse, do you have friends that actually believe fruit is bad for you because of sugar? What about those who completely swore off fats because it “makes you fat?”

While you might be able to smell the BS in an article or see that it comes from the Mayo Clinic, but you may be surprised to hear how much false and misleading information gets shared.

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Health Feedback is a bipartisan network of scientists who work together with the Credibility Coalition to take a look at the 100 most popular health articles of 2018.

They wanted to take a look at the posts with the highest amount of social media engagements. They took a look at stories from well-known websites like Time, NPR, the Huffington Post, and many more.

The Top 10 Shared Articles

Scientists found that three-quarters of the top 10 shared articles in 2018 were either misleading or included some sort of false information. Out of these 10, only three were considered “highly credible.”

The scientists found that some lacked context of the issue, exaggerated the harms of a potential threat, or overstated research findings. They found authors who simply twisted data or couldn’t properly interpret it. Lastly, scientists found that others did have an agenda.

One story “Is everything you think you know about depression is wrong?” which was shared 469,000 times, was found to be “not credible and potentially harmful.” The author suggests that most causes of depression are not due to a chemical imbalance of the brain, but from a lack of fulfillment in one’s life.

This article was posted over at Guardian and the scientists remark the article never backs up its claims with links to original sources or research studies to support their findings.

“This article is an excerpt from a provocative book written by a layperson who is clearly anti-psychiatry, so there is no pretense of providing evidence (except cherry-picking evidence which supports his views) or a balanced viewpoint,” writes Raymond Lam, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry. “It is full of wild exaggerations, oversimplifications and inaccuracies.”

Ready for some zingers?

One post in the top 10 list declared bacon as harmful as cigarettes — being shared 587,000 times. Also in the top 10 list, Time had an article titled “Stem Cell Treatment Could Be A Game-Changer for MS Patients,” and was shared 561,000 times.

What Did They Find?

Health Feedback approximates that of these 10 articles, 2.1 million shares had a very low scientific rating. They found 2.6 million shares ranked as neutral, and the highly scientific articles had only 1.7 million shares.

So, 33% of the top 10 articles shared had a low scientific rating, 41% were ranked as neutral, and 26% were considered highly scientific.

Once researchers found this out, they wanted to dive a little deeper so they took a look at the rest of the top 100 articles. Many of these articles had hundreds of thousands of shares.

They found the top three subjects were:

  • Disease and Disease Treatment
  • Food and Nutrition
  • Vaccinations

When looking at overall credibility, slightly less than half of the articles received a high credibility rating. Scientists found the highly rated articles received a total of 11 million shares, while the poorly rated articles had around 8.5 million shares.

To make things worse, two of the poorly rated articles had some pretty alarming claims. One links ramen noodles to Alzheimer’s, and another article claimed onions can be used to treat an ear infection.

Sensational Headlines

The Health Feedback team believes the social engagement comes mostly from sensational headlines that grab your attention.

It’s called clickbait.

No one really cares about the science of building muscle… But sign me up if there’s an article that claims to build 20 pounds of muscle in a week, right?

“This means that the general public is more likely to come into contact with misleading information than accurate ones on social media,” says the research team.

Is Social Media to Blame?

If you didn’t know, Facebook and other social media outlets all have algorithms that incentivize engagement. Have you ever wondered why something you posted two days ago gets one like and now people start commenting on it?

It’s the algorithm.

Fake news has been shown to spread faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information. False stories often play with your emotions like fear, disgust, surprise, and people are going to share what moves them.

The AMA Journal of Ethics calls for clinicians to clear up fake information with their patients. This trend is posing public health risks.

The scientists found that the fake health news spreads predominantly over Facebook. About 96% of the shares of the top 100 articles came from Facebook, followed by Reddit (3%) and Twitter (1%).

Facebook Took Some Action

The social media giant actually deleted dozens of pages dedicated to fringe or holistic medicine in order to crack down on the pseudoscience. The purge started in June, several months after Zuckerberg publicly vowed to crack down on the fake news.

This is generally associated with politics, but alternative health pages have been known to spread misleading or simply false information about medical remedies that are not backed by traditional science.

Facebook had great intentions, but its health news purge was criticized by those who viewed it as an attack on holistic or Eastern health practices. The Global Freedom Movement is an alternative media site and reported Facebook purged over 80 accounts with “no reason provided.”

Other large accounts focused on health, natural remedies, and organic living also purged. Just Natural Medicine had 1 million followers, Natural Cures Not Medicine had 2.3 million followers, and People’s Awakening had 3.6 million followers. Small accounts with under 15,000 followers were purged also.

Susan Krenn is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs and she’s been noted telling Fast Company that she’s seen a noticeable increase in inaccurate and downright false stories on social media.

“It’s a challenge because when you see something posted on your social media site that comes from one of your peers, colleagues, or family members, you are more likely to believe it,” said Krenn.

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