When it comes to health news, social media gets it wrong
Dr. Linda Lewis often cringes when she sees health news on the internet. She, like anyone else with a smartphone or computer, encounters a barrage of articles with click-enticing headlines about breakthroughs in research and cutting-edge treatments.
Even after reading to the bottom, she said, “I often wonder, What’s the rest of the story?”
She knows to be skeptical. Lewis is a medical professional—epidemiologist for the Butte County Department of Public Health and faculty member in the Health and Community Services Department at Chico State. She studies and tracks how diseases spread; scientific studies are her mental lifeblood.
Most readers lack her training. So, when a report misstates or oversimplifies findings, how many know the difference? Or, know to detect a discrepancy? When the report gets tweeted and retweeted, shared and reshared, blogged about and reposted, misinformation magnifies.
“Fifteen years ago, and before Web 2.0, this information was blurry and difficult to start with,” said Stephen Caldes, a Chico State journalism professor who teaches online media literacy. “Digital media, and social media specifically, has probably made this even more of a cluster.”
The extent to which internet distribution clouds health information got some quantification last week with the release of—shock!—a study that got covered in articles online.
Health Feedback, a group of international scientists who assess the credibility of health coverage from major media organizations, reviewed for accuracy the articles from last year that most engaged people on social media; that is, drew high totals of likes, shares and comments.
Among the top 10, only three proved highly credible. Four had scientific accuracy but misleading elements, and the remaining three had major inaccuracies. Extended to the top 100, the scientists determined 45 percent to be highly credible and 35 percent highly inaccurate.
Health Feedback conducted the study—titled “The Most Popular Health Articles of 2018, a Scientific Credibility Review,” out Feb. 4—in collaboration with an interdisciplinary media literacy group, the Credibility Coalition. They focused on articles about health and wellness as opposed to policy and politics.
Their findings surprised neither Lewis nor Caldes. Both pointed to sensational headlines and head-spinning research results, sometimes in direct contradiction to previous reports. The No. 1 social media story last year had as its headline “Federal Study Finds Marijuana 100X Less Toxic Than Alcohol, Safer Than Tobacco”—courtesy of urhealthguide.com (now apparently defunct). The review found this article highly suspect.
“Part of the scientific method, we never rely solely on one study,” Lewis said. “Studies have to be replicated. When there’s some new breakthrough—one study—it gets people’s attention, we’re interested, but [in medicine or public health] we’re not going to make changes until that study is replicated in a different institution by different people and the findings are consistent.”
Caldes noted a seesaw phenomenon: “Eggs have gone through ‘they’re good for you, they’re bad for you’; avocado, ‘it’s high in cholesterol, oh but it’s the good type of cholesterol’…
“With health and wellness and fitness and diet, that information is so fickle.”
Distinct from outright inaccuracy, Health Feedback delineated as credibility impacts such issues as lack of detail, absence of context, misinterpretation of findings and overstatement of significance. The study authors wrote, “This illustrates the need for journalists to go beyond simply accurately describing results and research in health news.”
Caldes feels readers also need to take extra steps.
“A well-meaning reporter can still make mistakes,” he said, “and half the articles we’re reading online are by citizen journalists or amateur journalists who are not working with an editorial board, haven’t been trained. So I want to put a lot of the effort on the consumer themselves. It’s your job to check the information; it’s your job to look into this further if it’s piqued your interest.”
Familiarity with the source of the material can serve as a good gauge of its accuracy.
Lewis sticks to sites for institutions she considers reputable. Her go-to resources are the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and California Department of Public Health. She also trusts research hospitals such as the Mayo Clinic, Harvard and Johns Hopkins.
In an article, look for hyperlinks. If they connect to the original study, or a report on it from the researchers’ university, check that out. If links lead to a rabbit hole of rehashes, Caldes said, that’s a red flag.
“We’re now a nation of secondary sources,” he said. “We’re talking about articles that are using articles as their source material, rather than looking at studies, looking at statistics, looking at information from peer-reviewed journals.
“People can come up with questions on [the validity of] anything,” Caldes noted. “If something takes you to the CDC, I give that a certain amount of weight—or a Pew Research study, or a study coming out of Stanford. Could there be problems with it? Sure. But it’s not coming from these organizations that are just scouring the internet and writing things.”
Caldes considers Facebook, in particular, “a dumpster fire” of online info-sharing. While he found value in it during the Camp Fire aftermath, with immediate updates and connections to aid, “that was the first bright light I’ve seen in social media in a while.”
His recommendation: “Do not use Facebook to get your news and information. If you post and share, you are part of the problem—you’re just spreading information that was interesting to you that you didn’t do enough work to fully evaluate, but you’re willing to pass that on.”
Lewis, too, sees certain lines of value in the social media sphere. She suggested Twitter feeds from the county public health department and other reputable sources as ways to stay informed. Yet, she well understands the double-edged sword that unsheathes.
“It’s all in the way you use it,” she said of social media. As she tells her students, when going online, “there’s a wealth of information available. It’s a remarkable resource. Like any tool, you have to use it wisely.”