What are the dangers of unverified medical news?

by | Aug 3, 2021 | Infectious Diseases

Fake Medical News Singapore: What are the dangers of unverified medical news?

Fake Medical News Singapore: What are the dangers of unverified medical news?

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.

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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.