How to Tell If Cancer Information on Social Media Is “Fake News”

Dr. Ann Meredith Garcia Trinidad earned her medical degree and master’s degree from the University of the Philippines and pursued her residency and fellowship training at the UP-Philippine General Hospital. She is currently the Head of the Section of Medical Oncology at the Dagupan Doctors Villaflor Memorial Hospital. She is a board-certified medical oncologist with a special interest in health care social media. Her Facebook page dedicated to raising cancer awareness among Filipinos has over 110,000 followers. You can follow her on Twitter.

With the rising global burden of cancer, it is not surprising that cancer has become one of the most Googled and most “over-tweeted” diseases. It is estimated that approximately 2.3 million people living with cancer worldwide are online, looking for quick answers to their life-changing diagnosis. According to a Healthline-commissioned survey from 2017, 89% of people diagnosed with cancer go online to search for more information about their illness. But how can patients navigate the vast jungle of online health information without getting misled?

Misinformation has become a serious threat to science and public health with its ability to spread faster and further through social networks than the truth. Cancer is no stranger to this, because it is a complex and serious disease. Indeed, cancer has become a major target of medical misinformation, particularly by those who are selling unproven alternative therapies. And when online misinformation goes viral, patients are exposed to real harm. People with cancer are often vulnerable targets who are searching for relief. False or unreliable information can lead to delays in cancer treatment or even stopping treatment. This can lead to worse chances of survival.

There are 2 kinds of fake news: stories that are not at all true, which are completely made up to deceive or harm people, and stories that have some truth but are not entirely accurate. While there is no completely foolproof way to dodge fake news altogether, there are several ways to spot it.

  1. Always read beyond headlines. Be wary of sensationalized or “clickbait” titles. Read the whole story. Resist the urge to share, like, or comment before you know what the article really says. Don’t fall into the trap of TL;DR (too long; didn’t read).

  2. Check the author. Run a quick search on the author’s credentials and other works. Are they an expert on the field in question? Be careful with articles posted anonymously or under an alias.

  3. Look at the date. Ignore old news or previously debunked articles, which commonly happens on social media.

  4. Think about where the photo comes from. Sometimes, eye-catching but manipulated or recycled images are used just to attract the reader’s attention. Sometimes the image is a stock image, and sometimes an image may be real but is completely unrelated to the article. A reverse image search on Google may also help you find the original source of photos that seem questionable.

  5. See who else is reporting the story. Verify the claims of the article by searching for those claims on the internet and seeing if others are reporting it. Are other reliable sources reporting the same story? You can check the claim against reputable media sources or fact-checking websites. Or, you can ask an actual credible expert. It may be helpful to click on links included in the article to see if they actually support the story.

  6. Evaluate the source. Check the website or social media page’s “About Us” section, “Contact Us” section, and URL to see where the content is coming from and who is producing it. Beware of sites with many pop-ups and banner ads.

  7. Review the “why” behind the article. Is the article written to convey facts or is it an opinion piece trying to convince you of something? Is it a sponsored post or advertisement? Many sites use misinformation to sell unproven treatments and services. Or, ask yourself if the article is trying to lead you into performing a desired action, like going to a third-party website or purchasing something.

  8. Check the writing style. Look for spelling and grammatical errors, overuse of capital letters or exclamation points, and other aspects of writing that feel out of place. Credible information sources are regularly and professionally edited and do not allow sloppy writing.

  9. Watch out for satirical/humor articles. Some stories may seem so outrageous or unbelievable that they may be written as humor. There are many satirical news sites on the internet, so be sure the article you’re reading isn’t meant as a joke. Most satirical websites will have a statement that it is a humor website.

These are just some of the ways that you can find out if that online cancer information you’re seeing online is reliable. I really like to use a helpful tool called CREDIBLE, which was created by digital health researcher Dr. Gunther Eysenbach. The CREDIBLE system says that health information should meet the following criteria:

  • Current: The information is current and frequently updated.

  • References: Claims are backed up with references to medical articles.

  • Explicit: The purpose and intention of the website can be easily found.

  • Disclosure of sponsors: It is easy to find out who is behind the website.

  • Interests: The article indicates when there is a conflict of interest or disclosure to be made.

  • Balanced content: The content is not one-sided.

  • Level of Evidence: The article describes the strength of the evidence supporting its claim.

Some final red flags

  • The use of patient testimonials instead of scientific evidence

  • Buzzwords, such as “miracle cure,” “no side effects,” and “Big Pharma”

  • Purchasing information directly on the website

  • Content intended to make you afraid

  • Advises you not to listen to your doctor

Anyone who uses the internet and especially social media can be exposed to health misinformation. Sometimes even well-meaning but misinformed loved ones will share it. So it is very important to develop a critical mindset. Always verify the information you are reading before clicking that “like” or “share” button.

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