Telling truth from fiction in our age of health disinformation
Reprinted from the Recovery: Living Your Bestish Life issue of Visions Journal, 2022, 17 (4), pp. 11-13
In 1885 Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays—and saw his skeleton. He began to work in private in case he ruined his reputation with such fantastical claims. Discoveries from Henri Becquerel and Marie Curie further uncovered ionizing radiation and the role it could play in health diagnostics and treatment. And just like today, misinformation and quackery spread alongside these advances in physics.
In the early 1900s radioactive quacks sold products to cure all that ailed you. If you didn’t want to irradiate your own water in a “Revigator” (a crock lined with radium and uranium), you could buy “Radithor” water (a health tonic that included both radium-226 and radium-228). You could brush your teeth with thorium, bathe in radium-226 or heat a “Radium Ore Healing Pad” to ease aches and pains.
Radioactive quacks preyed on poorly informed people who just wanted to feel better—that is, until a death linked to Radithor brought in strict regulations. Today, radio imaging, radiotherapies and radiopharmaceuticals use radiation to save lives. But radiation is a destructive force when it isn’t used with knowledge.
Radioactive quacks weren’t the first to spread misinformation, and they certainly won’t be the last. After the World Health Organization declared a Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, they declared an “infodemic”—an exponential increase in information, some reliable and some not, fuelling rumours, assumptions, conspiracy theories and disinformation. Disinformation, misinformation and fake news continue to threaten everyone’s health and well-being.
Disinformation is false information spread deliberately and maliciously. Disinformation campaigns can have many different goals, from selling a product to destabilizing political systems. In the context of health, disinformation campaigns often sow distrust about medical systems and sell alternative treatments or services.
Disinformation sources also use a desire for better health and wellness, or fears of health problems to attract individuals into increasingly extremist right-wing politics.1 Canadians are watching this unfold in real time as far-right organizers, some with ties to white supremacist or neo-Nazi ideologies, continue to drive Covid-19 and vaccination disinformation, misinformation and fake news.2
Fake news is a sensationalized or entirely falsified story designed to look like it comes from a legitimate media source. It is particularly prevalent on social media platforms, where users are more likely to believe a story when it’s shared by someone they know and trust. Fake news can be an effective tool in disinformation campaigns because it can be very convincing.3
Misinformation is false information shared without malicious intent, such as a Facebook post you think is true. Even if there is no intent to deceive, the information may originate from a disinformation campaign. For example, the majority of vaccine misinformation on Facebook can be traced back to only 12 accounts.4
The risks of health disinformation
We rely on information to make health decisions every day, from daily habits that make us feel good to complicated treatments for serious health problems. When people have poor or deliberately falsified information, they can’t make informed and evidence-based health decisions. The challenge today is understanding the risks of poor or deceptive health information. In one study, 96% of participants used an unreliable source when asked to look up health information, even though 70% of participants said they were confident they could tell the difference between poor and good-quality sources.5
While we know a lot of bad information circulates online and that health beliefs based on bad information are quite common, we don’t yet fully understand what health outcomes result from disinformation, misinformation and fake news.6 We do know misinformation or beliefs in medical conspiracies can affect health behaviours; people engage in different, potentially harmful actions like:
refusing diagnosis, treatment or management of a health problem
using alternative health products that have not been evaluated for efficacy or safety
refusing preventive measures or treatment of a contagious disease
broadening distrust of medical systems, medical professionals, or scientific evidence in general7
Disinformation, misinformation and fake news are systemic issues, and the solution to these problems is likely also systemic. While many approaches are still emerging, individuals can take action to think critically about health information. A good start is identifying “red flags” that might signal disinformation and “green flags” that support trust:
You feel like you’re being persuaded rather than informed; you’re encouraged to “join them”
You’re offered an extremely simple solution for a complicated problem
There are financial incentives to tell you what you want to hear; you are encouraged to buy something
The source claims to know “the truth” or wants you to believe that all doctors are wrong
You encounter frequent fallacious claims like “natural is safer” (this isn’t true) or “chemicals are bad” (much of the world around us is a chemical
The information source also shares conspiracy theories (such as vaccine, Covid-19 or 5G conspiracies) or promotes political extremism (such as sharing far-right media sources, ideas or events)
You feel like you’re being provided information so you can make decisions with your doctor or other health professionals
You know who is behind the information and what their credentials are
The source provides citations and links; they show evidence behind their claims
The information generally matches what you’ve found from other legitimate sources
The information looks at both risks and benefits, positive and negative aspects—you don’t see a lot of bias
Applying health information and making health decisions
Your health decisions will be unique because your biology, health, lifestyle and other factors are unique. Even when health information comes from a credible source, you need to assess risks and benefits based on your personal situation, like your specific health issue, medications and supplements; accessibility of the treatment or support; and cost. Your doctor, health care team or pharmacist can help you make the best decision for you. If you don’t have a family doctor and you don’t know who to ask about a health product, call HealthLinkBC at 811 to speak with a registered nurse or pharmacist.
Wellness and recovery are subjective. If you think a particular wellness approach improves or adds meaning to your day but isn’t strongly supported with evidence, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad, as long as:
it fits with all of your other treatments and approaches
it isn’t dangerous
it isn’t a financial burden
you understand the limits of the approach
Ritual, routine and enjoyment can have benefits. However, even when a supplements, herb or similar product is thought to be generally safe, there may not be a lot of evidence to support safety claims. It’s up to you and your health care team to decide if a product is a good fit for you.
Quality information helps everyone make decisions around health and well-being. Disinformation, misinformation and fake news target people who just want to take care of themselves and may encourage health behaviours that threaten or harm health and well-being. Thinking critically about health information and seeking guidance from your doctor or health care provider can go a long way as you seek changes to feel healthy and well.
Finding information you can trust
How to apply it
Examine the intent of the information
Look at the source
Think like a scientist
Pay attention to the ask
- For more on evaluating sources of mental health and substance use information, see HeretoHelp’s info sheet: heretohelp.bc.ca/infosheet/evaluating-mental-health-and-substance-use-information
- To learn more about judging Covid-19 information, see: Pan American Health Organization. (2020). Understanding the infodemic and misinformation in the fight against COVID-19: Digital transformation toolkit. iris.paho.org/bitstream/handle/10665.2/52052/Factsheet-infodemic_eng.pdf
About the author
Stephanie is the editorial coordinator for the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division
- Farinelli, F. (2021). Conspiracy theories and right-wing extremism – Insights and recommendations for P/CVE. European Commission, EU. ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/networks/radicalisation-awareness-network-ran/publications/conspiracy-theories-and-right-wing-extremism-insights-and-recommendations-pcve-2021_en
- Clarke, J. (2021, December 27). The dangerous rise of the anti-vax far-right. Canadian Dimension. canadiandimension.com/articles/view/the-dangerous-rise-of-the-anti-vax-right.
- Buchanan, T., & Benson, V. (2019). Spreading Disinformation on Facebook: Do trust in message source, risk propensity, or personality affect the organic reach of “fake news”? Social Media + Society. doi.org/10.1177/2056305119888654.
- Center for Countering Digital Hate. (2021, March 24). This Disinformation Dozen: Why platforms must act on twelve leading online anti-vaxxers. counterhate.com/disinformationdozen.
- Quinn, S., Bond, R., & Nugent, C. (2017). Quantifying health literacy and eHealth literacy using existing instruments and browser-based software for tracking online health information seeking behavior. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 256–267. doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.032
- Bastick, Z. (2021). Would you notice if fake news changed your behavior? An experiment on the unconscious effects of disinformation. Computers in Human Behavior, 116, doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2020.106633.
- Oliver, J. E., & Wood, T. (2014). Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(5), 817–18. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.190.