How harmful is fake medical news?
Fake Medical News Singapore: The search for the true Medical & Health News with Asia MD.
The fight against the Covid-19 is being undermined by an epidemic of epic proportions: The proliferation of fake medical news.
In July 2021, a news report in The New York Times highlighted a disquieting boom in the disinformation-for-hire industry. Its opening paragraph said that several French and German social media influencers were approached in May to promote falsehoods tarring Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine.
Closer to home, a group of doctors started an online petition a few months ago to call for ivermectin to be used as part of an outpatient treatment plan for Covid-19, claiming that the anti-parasite drug had been overlooked by the World Health Organization (WHO) and regulatory authorities as a possible preventive treatment.
The same group of medical professionals has called for children in Singapore to be given Covid-19 vaccines made with the traditional inactivated whole virus method (i.e. Sinovac) instead of the mRNA ones in Singapore’s national vaccination programme. The World Health Organization has yet to approve Sinovac for use in people younger than 18 years old.
These actions clearly aim to undermine public confidence in the mRNA vaccines. However, one type of fake news is not like the other. What do we mean?
Two classifications of fake medical news
Fake news falls into two classifications: misinformation and disinformation.
Misinformation happens when facts are misinterpreted or when the seriousness of a public health crisis is played down, said Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, Director of Medical Services of Singapore’s Ministry of Health.
When misinformation is spread to the population at large, this can lead to people “not doing things they should and doing things they shouldn’t,” he told AsiaMD.com. “It could lead to a general reluctance to take on the recommendations of experts, doctors and health authorities.”
An example A/Prof Mak cited was the attitude that Singapore’s population did not need to be vaccinated, as the nation was not seeing high infection rates as some other regions. He said: “Such messages did not intend to deliberately harm people, but the socialising of these messages resulted in a lot of hesitancy to take up measures that are important to them, and inadvertently, that causes some level of harm.”
Disinformation, which is the other type of fake news, is spread with deliberate intent to mislead people with clear untruths. Disinformation, defined by Merriam-Webster as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumours) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth,” tends to steer people away from adhering to the correct medical treatments or behaviours.