Why Do People Believe Health Missinformation?

It’s too soon to say whether Google’s and Facebook’s attempts to clamp down on fake news will have a significant impact. But fabricated stories posing as serious journalism are not likely to go away as they have become a means for some writers to make money and potentially influence public opinion. Even as Americans recognize that fake news causes confusion about current issues and events, they continue to circulate it. A December 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that 23 percent of U.S. adults have shared fake news, knowingly or unknowingly, with friends and others.

“Fake news” is a term that can mean different things, depending on the context. News satire is often called fake news as are parodies such as the “Saturday Night Live” mock newscast Weekend Update. Much of the fake news that flooded the internet during the 2016 election season consisted of written pieces and recorded segments promoting false information or perpetuating conspiracy theories. Some news organizations published reports spotlighting examples of hoaxes, fake news and misinformation on Election Day 2016.

The news media has written a lot about fake news and other forms of misinformation, but scholars are still trying to understand it — for example, how it travels and why some people believe it and even seek it out. Below, Journalist’s Resource has pulled together academic studies to help newsrooms better understand the problem and its impacts. Two other resources that may be helpful are the Poynter Institute’s tips on debunking fake news stories and the First Draft Partner Network, a global collaboration of newsrooms, social media platforms and fact-checking organizations that was launched in September 2016 to battle fake news. In mid-2018, JR‘s managing editor, Denise-Marie Ordway, wrote an article for Harvard Business Review explaining what researchers know to date about the number of misinformation people consume, why they believe it, and the best ways to fight it.

The phrase “health misinformation” refers to any health-related claim under the assumption of truth that is false based on current scientific consensus. It is a relatively new catchphrase gaining momentum as more people become active on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

And the prevalence of health misinformation on social media is growing. A systematic review recently examined 69 studies that focused on health misinformation in social media.

Investigators found a high number of incorrect health content concerning smoking products, drugs, and public health issues, including vaccines and diseases. The prevalence of health misinformation was highest on Twitter.

After compiling the data, the research team found that people with a lower education level and less knowledge of healthcare issues were more likely to believe inaccurate information than other study participants.

Individuals who showed distrust in the healthcare system and those who had a favorable view of alternative treatments were also more likely to believe health-related misinformation.

Additionally, participants who believed the false claims on one topic were also likely to believe misinformation presented on other health topics.

Experts are evenly split on whether the coming decade will see a reduction in false and misleading narratives online. Those forecasting improvements place their hopes in technological fixes and in societal solutions. Others think the dark side of human nature is aided more than stifled by technology.