A new analysis presents some findings that concern all of us who look for medical information online.
The analysis comes from a new company called NewsGuard, which claims to have developed a rating system for the credibility of internet news based on what it deems objective journalistic principles. After assessing over 3,000 of the most-visited news sites, NewsGuard found that 40 percent of the sites that it has rated as misleading or problematic are about health or medicine.Read More
Earlier this month, SurvivorNet reported on announcements that Facebook and YouTube—two of the largest purveyors of internet news—would be taking steps to crack down on misleading health information on their platforms. Facebook said it would be changing its page-ranking algorithms to keep misleading health news from appearing at the top of the news feed, and YouTube said it would be removing advertisements on “bogus cancer treatment channels.” Neither of the platforms announced plans to remove the content altogether, but the changes were an acknowledgment, at least, of the pervasive problem of inaccurate health news sweeping the web.
Now NewsGuard, founded by veterans of news and cable television, is using nine criteria to rate news websites as either “green” (credible) or “red” (misleading). Of the nearly 3,000 news websites that NewsGuard has rated so far, 37 percent of the “red” ones are health news sites. The system is an attempt at giving news consumers some power through information. To be sure, applying a traffic-light, “red-or-green” grading system to news sites may be an over-simplification; the nine criteria don’t include a way to measure the nuance around reporting, and it would be difficult for any single company to assess, for instance, the difference between a physician who once studied cancer in medical school and one who is a world leader in research.
Too Many Health News Websites are “In the Red”
These “red” health news sites, according to NewsGuard, accounted for more than 49 million social media engagements (including shares, likes, and comments) in the past 90 days. These numbers surpass the social engagement footprint of the major news outlets NPR, Forbes, and Business Insider.
One of the reasons it comes as such a surprise to find such a significant percentage of the internet’s misinformation stems from health news, perhaps, is because the issue has not attracted the same amount of national attention as political misinformation has.
With Health News, The “Bad Apples” Can Be Hard To Spot
SurvivorNet asked NewsGuard’s John Gregory why he thought health misinformation hasn’t garnered the same amount of attention as political news, especially given the harm it can cause its readers.
“It’s difficult to attribute this to any single factor,” Gregory said, adding that one possible factor could be that other types of misinformation — including political misinformation — can be debunked more quickly than medical news can. “If a health website posts an article tomorrow promoting a new miracle cure for cancer, months or years may go by before researchers demonstrate that there’s no evidence backing it up,” he said. “In the meantime, news of this ‘cure’ may have spread far and wide over social media, contributing to Americans’ unhealthy diet of health misinformation.
The type of misleading content referenced in NewsGuard’s analysis ranges from the dangerous unfounded claims that the lifesaving measles vaccine can cause autism to the unsubstantiated “cancer cures” that range from fruit pits to baking soda to cannabidiol and marijuana. There is no evidence that any of these alternative therapies can treat cancer, and in some cases, they can do more harm than good. This was the case for a young woman named Naima Houder Mohamed who died at age 27 after opting to “treat” her breast cancer with baking soda injections after reading about the “miracle cure” online. And as NewsGuard’s John Gregory reported in STAT News, consuming certain substances made from fruit pits, can actually result in reactions similar to those of cyanide poisoning.)
These examples only scratch the surface of the profusion of false medical news on the internet. “Cancer cures” that have not been proven, vetted, and in many cases, even studied at all, are everywhere—and for many readers on the consuming end of the news, it can be hard to tell which news outlets are the credible ones. Often, news stories about those unfounded “cures”—such as the baking soda and the fruit pits—will add links to credible research papers in their articles to make the content look more reputable. But as Gregory reports, these research papers, when you read them closely and interpret the findings accurately (which isn’t always easy for someone who isn’t versed in scientific jargon), the findings either say the opposite of what the misleading news article is claiming or doesn’t even relate to the subject at all.
NewsGuard’s analysis is pertinent today not only because of the recent Facebook and YouTube announcements, but also because this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning letter to a company called Curaleaf that had been misleading its consumers by claiming that its cannabidiol (CBD) products could “kill human breast cancer cells,” among a long list of other unfounded treatment claims.
Dr. Ann Partridge of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute spoke with SurvivorNet about the lure of vitamins and supplements for “curing cancer” and how a lot of people are “selling hope”—not legitimate treatment.
How To Protect Yourself From Health Information Online
The bottom line is you need credible sources that are vetted by physicians. SurvivorNet checks all of its medical content with a panel of physicians who specialize in the specific subject, and top doctors review one another.
NewsGuard has an interesting approach grounded in journalism. “You need to be discerning and conduct a sort of ‘medical check-up’ on health sites and articles,” Gregory said. “Ask yourself questions like, ‘What are the site’s sources behind these claims?’ ‘Is it relying on anecdotal evidence or published research?’ ‘Does the author or website appear to be selling you a ‘cure’ or procedure?'”
Gregory added that conducting one of these “medical check-ups” doesn’t mean that you have to be well versed in medical jargon; the warning signs are often hard to miss once you know what to look for.
“Like political misinformation, one of the biggest warning signs can be a health site that relies on emotion and sensationalism to make its case,” Gregory said. “Sometimes, that’s as simple as the site using ALL CAPS in the text.”
Dr. Jason Westin, an oncologist and lymphoma researcher at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, previously shared another valuable piece of advice when it comes to discerning health news credibility: Dr. Westin told us that when something sounds too good to be true, unfortunately, that often means it is.
“If there were treatment options that weren’t based on chemotherapy, that weren’t based on targeted therapies, that worked well for our patients, sign me up,” he said, explaining that the reason doctors aren’t treating their patients with these alternative therapies (the supplements and “miracle cures” out there) is because they haven’t been shown to be effective in clinical research.