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.
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The spread of disinformation has occurred throughout the entire past 18 months Singapore has been trying to battle Covid-19, A/Prof Mak said. “In the early days, when we didn’t have a good understanding of what Covid-19 was all about, people thought that it wasn’t anything serious. (Some said,) ‘Please carry on with your way of life; the government has deliberately engaged in some form of conspiracy to restrain you; don’t follow the government’s advice when it comes to isolating yourself and practising safe distancing.’”
Following such advice is harmful to health because it would increase one’s risk of getting an infection, he added.
Later, when Covid-19 developed a strong foothold in the community, people started propagating the idea that there were medical treatments and traditional remedies that could prevent infection. To date, there are no medically-proven preventive treatments against Covid-19.
People could have wilfully spread these fake news with malicious intent, or were genuinely misguided because they lacked insight.
“Sometimes, it was the omission of treatment that causes the harm,” said A/Prof Mak, citing the 1998 anti-vaccine movement spearheaded by former British physician and academic Andrew Wakefield. He had falsely claimed that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. Wakefield was struck off the medical register, but the myth that he spun had lasting impact. The anti-MMR vaccine movement has led to serious measles outbreaks in certain countries, such as the United States, Ukraine and the Philippines.
Why do people gravitate to fake news?
A famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study from 2018 found out that falsehoods are 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth, and reach their first 1,500 people six times faster. It took true stories about six times as long as false ones to reach 1,500 people.
The reason: False news was more novel than the truth and people were more likely to share novel information. On the one hand, false rumours incited more intense feelings of surprise, fear and disgust from its recipients; on the other hand, the truth evoked greater sadness, anticipation, joy and trust.
When asked why a Singapore audience would believe alternative, unverified sources of news, A/Prof Mak thinks that there are multiple factors at play. First of all, the general public may lack basic understanding of medical science, leading to vulnerability and naiveness among individuals. When faced with a new disease, new vaccine technology, new treatments and a paradigm shift, people “who are really afraid of new things” can become palpably fearful of the unknown.
Some people may also have allegiances which influence their behaviour and thinking. “Some people who belong to a social group with certain worldview may adopt the preferences of the majority without deep thought,” he said.
Lastly, there’s also the conspiracy theory mindset that the government has a hidden agenda and does not have the people’s interests at heart. People who buy into the conspiracy theory will instinctively resist the government’s recommendations, and this affects not only healthcare but political areas, too.
How to tell apart fake news from real news
It is unlikely that disinformation would cease to exist one day.
The New York Times reports that private firms are selling services to sow discord, meddle in elections, seed false narratives and push viral conspiracies, mostly on social media. And they offer a layer of deniability, which frees their clients to sow disinformation more aggressively than ever.
Sadly, Singaporeans may not be savvy at discerning between fake news and real news. A study done by the Institute of Policy Studies in 2020 found out that most Singaporeans were unable to detect false information, with more than two-thirds of some 2,000 respondents failing the experiment. The study found that political ideologies and being well-educated have little bearing on a person’s susceptibility to fake news.
Thankfully, there are ways to discern between fake and real medical news, whether or not you have a healthcare background. Be a little more critical of the news you receive via social media or at the marketplace. A/Prof Mak, who is himself a general surgeon by training, has these pro tips to offer:
- Scrutinise the messenger. Who is propagating the message – is their industry or area of specialty relevant to the topic they are promoting? If not, their message may not be credible.
- Is this information independently verifiable by trusted references? Fake news often lacks references because its claims are not backed by research. Recipients of a piece of information should be able to independently verify such claims. When there is a certain vagueness about information that is presented, it should raise alarm bells.
- Problems may arise when we receive information from healthcare professionals. In some areas of medicine, even experts may not have a complete understanding of how a condition arises and how it should be treated due to changing medical research results. There could be genuine differences in professional opinion. Ask yourself: Is the messenger a well-qualified expert to speak on the healthcare topic in question? Is this person a lone ranger, spouting a set of personal views which seem very discordant against the rest of the community? If so, the message could be his or her own subjective opinion and not an objective assessment.
- Look at the setting where this medical opinion is being shared. It is one thing for information to be shared in a reputable scientific journal, where there is opportunity for peer review and criticism, and for recommendations to be defended. It is another thing for a personal medical opinion to be shared in the public domain. A well-balanced medical opinion should have first withstood the test of debate and peer review before it has more weight.
- Be more sceptical of news disseminated exclusively on social media. If this story is only being circulated in informal social spaces and not in credible mass media, it could very well be because it is just a rumour.
- Look at the message – is it logical? Reasonable? If the information is too incredible, a responsible media outlet would report caveats and give both sides of the story. However, if the story presents only one point of view and flogs its recommendation with superlatives, it could very well come from a snake oil salesman.
By applying a more circumspect eye, you can train yourself to sieve out fake news even without professional analytical training.
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