Here's how to spot 'dangerous' health misinformation online, according to a doctor

Dr. Alok Patel
·4-min read
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Dr. Alok Patel is In The Know’s health and wellness contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter for more.

Medical information comes at you in so many different forms online. It resembles the eclectic cast of a high school drama; it tempts you like a crush, scares you like a bully, provides quick answers like the know-it-all or makes you question reality like the philosophical kid.

All you’re trying to do is find the friend who has no ulterior motive and keeps it real — the validated health information.

In these dystopian times, health misinformation is so rampant, the World Health Organization declared an “Infodemic.” I second that misinformation is dangerous and can lead to confusion and hysteria. This then manifests as people gargling bleach, self-medicating with fish tank cleaner, burning 5G towers, hurling racist attacks at Muslims or Asians or still believing the pandemic is a hoax.

Enough is enough. Let’s give you that tools to spot the pseudoscience poppycock.

If you see a questionable health headline, ask these questions:

Is this a legitimate source?

Before you give brain space to a health claim, verify the source. Look at the web address. A website ending with a .gov, .edu or .org means, respectively, the content comes from a governmental agency, an educational institution or a non-profit and has a higher likelihood of being trustworthy.

Check the sponsoring institution. Is it a major news outlet, public health agency, scientific journal or a blog linked to someone who thinks 9/11 is a government conspiracy? If it’s the latter, the information is likely as real as Mickey Mouse.

Who’s the author?

Always check the author’s credentials. Make sure they’re qualified to write whatever you came across.

Also, don’t immediately assume content is trustworthy if it’s shared by a physician or scientist. Revisit the infamous, debunked, video made by “America’s Frontline Providers” for an example.

Does it seem angry?

Fear and hope can make an article enticing. Anger can get you to share misinformation impulsively. Miscreants know this and use raw emotion to lure you. Real science journalism relies on objective reporting. There’s a key difference.

Look out for wording that seems like an angry grandpa wrote it.

Is it secretly a sales pitch?

Ask yourself why the author wrote the article. If there’s a sales pitch, raise an eyebrow.

Pseudoscience hucksters take advantage of widespread fear to make a profit. An example is the laughable, coronavirus-fighting toothpaste.

You may have also seen health articles selling “immune-boosting” pills, fat burning supplements or jade eggs, designed to be inserted vaginally, to boost your energy (How is Goop still selling these?)

Are the research references legitimate?

Here’s a common trap: An article has links to scientific studies, but they’re outdated, rebuked and/or poor quality. Don’t fall for it.

Someone sent me this blog post insinuating that the pandemic is part of a “mass homicide campaign.” Looking beyond the ridiculousness, you’ll see there’s one paper cited, and it’s from June 2020. The paper misrepresents data and the author is far from credible, having questioned everything from masks to climate change. Speaking of anti-maskers, many have shared clips of Dr. Anthony Fauci seemingly downplaying mask-wearing. The video clips are outdated, taken prior to our current understanding of virus transmission.

Do other outlets report the same finding?

If the headline says something like “breakthrough scientific finding,” look to see if it’s been reported elsewhere. If not, your B.S. meter should go off. If it truly was breaking news, major news outlets would be all over it, and it wouldn’t be confined to one source.

Is the data accurately reported?

This plays off the previous tip. If you see varying interpretations of a study, pay attention to what credible outlets are saying.

In August, a report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated that 6 percent of COVID-19 deaths had only one diagnosis listed on the death certificate. The other 94 percent had underlying conditions such as hypertension or diabetes, also listed on death certificates. Conspiracy groups, including QAnon, spun the finding and claimed the CDC “admitted only 6 percent of deaths were truly from COVID19.” This led to further mistrust and a social media fiasco.

In short, the medical charlatans are likely not going anywhere. Snake Oil salesmen were selling phony cures in the late 19th century, the Tobacco industry used shady advertising to refute science in the 1950s and, today, anti-vaccine zealots are spreading rumors about the not-yet-approved, coronavirus vaccine.

Learn their tricks. Go beyond the headline, spot all the red flags and be careful not to share invalidated information.

Take that, pseudoscience.

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