My July 17 column dealt with disinformation in the scientific literature. In this column, I will deal more broadly with the problem of health misinformation and disinformation.
Right after I submitted last week’s column, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory about the dangers of health misinformation, declaring such misinformation “an urgent threat to public health.”
Misinformation is information that is contrary to the best available evidence. Disinformation is misinformation deliberately spread for purposes of deception.
Disinformation can be spread for many reasons, sometimes for political or financial gain but increasingly to simply sow discord and confusion, as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, where disinformation has undermined public health measures such as mask-wearing and vaccinations.
Health misinformation is not a new phenomenon, but the ease of obtaining information in the digital age allows it to spread rapidly and widely. Much has been said about the role of big tech companies, social media and search engines in the spread of misinformation with their “likes,” sensationalized emotional headlines and algorithmically generated newsfeeds contributing to our polarization and increasingly siloed information sources. But they alone are not to blame.
Each individual needs to examine his or her role in spreading misinformation. Each time you retweet something or share an email or “like” a post, you are stamping it with your seal of approval. If you have not taken the time to verify the information which you are spreading, you may be spreading misinformation.
Nowhere is this personal responsibility more important than for celebrities, thought leaders and, in particular, politicians. Some politicians routinely spread disinformation in their social media, speeches and even during committee hearings in the House or Senate in order to appeal to their base. They should be held to a higher standard given their power and reach.
Many of the same principles used to critically evaluate the scientific literature can be adapted to evaluate information we find on websites and social media feeds.
Look at the source. Many websites are biased, promoting a specific point of view. Information about the bias of any given website can be found by performing a search for information on the website or using websites such as mediabiasfactcheck.com which evaluates media websites for bias and credibility. politifact.com, snopes.com, and factcheck.org are all helpful in evaluating questionable information.
If the post has an author’s name, investigate the credentials of the author, looking for conflicts of interest or a history of false or biased statements from that individual.
Headlines may be sensationalized. Read the entire report to evaluate the validity. If the report is citing primary sources, look at those sources to see if they are being misquoted or if they even exist.
If the post or email you are evaluating purports to be news, see if you can confirm that information from other reputable sources.
Be cognizant of your own biases when evaluating what comes through your social media feed or email. Our confirmation bias will cause us to put more faith in information which confirms our current beliefs. It takes discipline to submit information which supports your point of view to critical analysis. On the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, I developed a reputation as someone who will critically evaluate claims made by witnesses before our committee, even those with whom I agree.
A constituent of mine has been sending me emails regarding cures for COVID. His long emails with multiple references to websites, scientific articles and social media posts were intriguing. I reviewed the references, read the scientific articles, visited the the websites and researched the nature of the websites. A Facebook post was found to be fabricated and the assertions in the post were false.
Strikingly, nearly every literature reference was either irrelevant, scientifically unsound or had clear biases and conflicts of interest. Many of the websites had biases due to funding and politics, with many routinely promoting various conspiracy theories.
A common disinformation example is the claim that 6,000 people have died from the COVID vaccine, based upon the CDC and FDA Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).
Any death from any cause following a COVID-19 vaccine must be reported to VAERS, even if the person died when hit by a car. As noted by the CDC, such reports do not necessarily mean that the vaccine caused the death. Review of clinical information has not established a causal link to the vaccines. Stating that the deaths reported are due to the vaccines is disinformation.
Please do your part to stop misinformation. If you have not verified it, do not share it.
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