Health vs. Hoax

Immunize Yourself Against Health Misinformation Online

Health misinformation that circulates online ranges from useless tips to dangerous claims. It can be spread by people who sincerely want to help but don’t get the advice quite right, or it can come from people trying to make money off of your fear or frustration. If the advice turns out to be wrong, how bad could it be?

Now more than ever, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the mixed messages you’re hearing across the internet – coming from celebrities and politicians to your own friends and family – about how to stay healthy and avoid illnesses like the coronavirus (COVID-19).

By now, you know that washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is critical to stop the spread of germs. But knowing how to spot health misinformation and not passing it on can be just as important for your own wellbeing and for those around you.

In the search for good, reliable health information, we’ve put together this Data Detox Kit guide just for you, so that you can keep a critical eye on health claims you encounter and know what to follow, share, or ignore. These tips will help you to boost the collective digital ecosystem.

Let’s go!

How Bad Could It Be?

There are many different types of false information out there (including misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation – you can learn more about each of these types here). It may help to think of them on a spectrum of how much they could negatively affect you, as described by the 2019 report Understanding Information Disorder. You can also look at health misinformation on this same spectrum. Let’s take a look:

Low harm refers to a piece of false health information that might make you confused but won’t hurt you or make you ill. This includes satire or parody, or advice that has no effects, or results in a placebo effect, without detriment to your wellbeing.

Medium harm describes health misinformation that could leave you with a false sense of stress or security, eat up your money, or maybe even make you ill. This might be a trick or prank, or it might be misleading advice or products (like the website Goop has been known to promote).

High harm is when health misinformation can result in long-term, severe, or irreversible physical damage or psychological distress, (like fake cures or poisonous advice) or leads you to distrust the medical or scientific community (including conspiracy theories like this or this).

The more you practice questioning and assessing the levels of harm in health misinformation, the more confident you’ll become at knowing when to simply shrug it off, or when to take stronger measures, like reporting it or warning your family and friends about it.

What apps are doing to slow the spread

In an attempt to tackle health misinformation and slow its spread, some platforms and apps are taking action. Twitter labels postings with health misinformation warnings, while Facebook uses AI to detect COVID-19 false information. YouTube has plans to add a fact-checking feature. Some apps like Instagram are even promoting credible sources of information like the World Health Organization or National Health Services. Are these apps doing enough or are you still finding misinformation on them? What are your preferred apps doing to help?

Bubble Trouble

Once you start clicking on articles, posts, or videos of a certain topic, you’ll start seeing more like it. This isn’t necessarily a clue that it’s accurate advice. A filter bubble is when services feed you more stories like the ones you’re already clicking on. YouTube is the most obvious example of a platform that recommends content based on what you already watch (also known as “algorithmic curation”), but filter bubbles describe the way content is recommended to you on the most popular websites and apps.

Stay on Top of Recommended Content

Just because a platform recommends a post or video to you, doesn’t mean it’s correct information or reliable advice. Recommendation algorithms from Instagram and Twitter Explore feeds, top posts on Facebook, YouTube and Netflix curated homepages and auto-play can lead you down unhelpful rabbit holes.

What’s more, when posts, pictures, and videos get a lot of attention from others, this makes them more likely to be promoted automatically.

Some of these feeds, like on Instagram and Twitter, give you the option to share your feedback if a post or account is uninteresting or offensive to you. (Whether or not they’re effective is another story.)

Keep a Wary Eye

If recommended content pulls you in or sticks with you in an unpleasant way, you have some options to limit it:

  • Turn off auto-play and notifications
  • Follow more known and trusted health sources
  • Install an ad blocker like uBlock Origin on your browser, so any web pages you view through your browser do not display the advertisements
  • Remove the app from your phone’s home screen
  • Periodically uninstall the app to give yourself a break

A Heavy Dose of Verification

With so many sources of health information online and in the news, it can be confusing to know who to listen to. The most reliable sources of health advice share the following qualities:

  • They list an author or authors: when you search for those authors online, you should be able to find out what other projects they’re working on and who they work for. Check their credentials: are they giving you advice in their field of expertise?
  • They add a published date on all claims/reports: they know that information evolves over time, so they clearly tell you when they last updated their advice. Read more in the next section about why “when” matters.
  • They clarify that there is no one-size-fits-all solution: depending on your profile or health history, a treatment that helps someone else may actually be harmful to you or vice versa.
  • They use cautious language: they don’t “guarantee” something will work, but instead they suggest something “may” help. A good sign of a trustworthy source is straight facts. If the story uses words that play on your emotions (like “miracle cure”), it might be a sign that they’re doing it intentionally to sway you.
  • They take the slow road to health: they acknowledge that there is no “instant fix” and that treatments take time, checkups, monitoring, and personalized adjustments.

It’s good practice to continue to question the advice and testimonials you hear about or see online, even if they’re from someone you’ve counted on in the past. You can keep asking:

  • Who is this person or website that’s sharing this advice?
  • What do they have to gain from sharing this information or product?
  • Are they making money from it?
  • Who is not recommending this advice or product and why not?

Does the advice sound too good to be true? You might be right.

Claims of instant fixes, fast healing, or total immunity are typical marketing terms used to grab your attention. Consider these kinds of extreme wording choices as a red flag and a reason to investigate further.

Check out IREX's 9 tips for spotting misinformation about the coronavirus for more qualities to look out for. For a list of critical questions to verify sources and claims, read Turn on the Light: Find the Truth on the Internet.

Why “When” Matters

Because medical advances require ongoing testing and clinical trials, medical professionals evolve their health advice on a regular basis. This is normal, and is recognized as a sign of reliable modern medicine. In the event of a health crisis or pandemic, medical advice is updated sometimes on a weekly or even daily basis.

Don’t share pictures or screenshots of advice; share the link

When you share a piece of advice, there’s a chance it might get updated over time. If you share a link, that means the person who receives it can more easily verify whether it’s still the most up-to-date guidance.

A perfect example of this came about during the coronavirus pandemic that began in late 2019. On the 14th of March 2020, the French Health Minister tweeted that ibuprofen can worsen coronavirus symptoms. This claim was quoted and widely reported in top news sources, buzzing smartphones in the pockets of worried people around the world. But on the 18th of March 2020, the World Health Organization tweeted that there was no proof of ibuprofen causing harm, and no reason to avoid it. Although the updated WHO advice was also widely reported, the correction has struggled to catch up with the original mistake.

Note: depending on when you read this article, the advice may have been updated again based on the most recent studies. Be sure to research it yourself before following any health advice.

Sort your news by the “most recent” or “newest” and always double-check the date

Not all news apps or feeds will automatically show you the newest articles. Sometimes the most popular result or a promoted website will show up first, even if it’s outdated. Be sure to sort the results yourself and to always double-check the date.

In search engines like Google and DuckDuckGo, which have a News section, you can filter results from within the last day, week, or month.

Challenge: Now that you know what to look for in a reliable source, pull out your phone and check the most recent health advice you’ve seen floating around on Facebook, WhatsApp, or Instagram. Give yourself 10 minutes to investigate the claim. Set a timer! If there’s an image attached to it, do a reverse image search on to see where else the image shows up. What do you find within 10 minutes of searching? Did the results change your mind? Are you left with more questions than answers?

The ‘Superfoods’ of Health Advice

Some of the resources for health news that are considered the most reliable and responsible by medical professionals are:

What are considered to be the superfoods of health advice where you live?

Realize Your Influence

We’ve talked about influencers on the internet or in the media, but have you ever considered yourself to be an influencer? Your opinions matter and carry weight to the people in your life. So let’s stop to ask: why do you share?

Match the type of content to the reason you share it

Arrow of theme misinformation

You want to keep up

You feel inspired

You want to help

Remedies or cures

Wellness products and practices

Breaking news

Match the type of content to the reason you share it

Remedies or cures

You want to help

You want to keep up

You feel inspired

Wellness products and practices

You want to help

You want to keep up

You feel inspired

Breaking news

You want to help

You want to keep up

You feel inspired

No matter the reason why you share, ask yourself what the worst case result of this advice may be before you hit “Post” to help you decide whether it’s worth it. When you share a health claim or a product, your friends and family may assume you’re endorsing it because it worked for you.

But shouldn’t everyone who has information, even if it’s not verified, share it just in case it helps somehow? Not necessarily. Health misinformation can be harmful, even in ways we don’t immediately see. Maybe the actual suggestion is harmless, but the indirect result leaves people confused about what to believe and what not to believe. Or they can become overly confident and put themselves at a higher risk than they otherwise would by rejecting public health protocols or doctors’ recommendations.

Recognize Your Responsibility

When you see a claim online, you might not give it second thought, but if that claim comes from a family member or friend, you’d naturally give it more time and consideration. The same is true when you share. You may have only given it a few minutes of your time, but your share may be misunderstood as your endorsement.

Spotting the signs of health misinformation not only benefits yourself, but your friends and family as well. No matter who you talk to, your shared goals of staying informed and healthy requires investigation, verification, and knowing who you can count on.

Want to check if what you’ve read is true? You can find more debunked coronavirus claims here. Check out this video which briefly walks you through the coronavirus disinformation ecosystem. Stay safe and well!

Last updated on: 1/7/2021