Health Disinformation

One of the challenges of medicine is that not everyone is well-informed about health and science in general, and many people have beliefs founded on “misinformation”. This is simply the spreading of false information (usually through the internet or social media) whether or not the spreader is aware that the information is false. This has been a problem for a long time, just because not everyone is good at science! However, recently there has been a huge increase in “disinformation”, which is spreading false information fraudulently, knowing that it is false, but doing it for personal gain. There have been conmen around for a long time too, but they have become more effective at reaching hundreds of times as many people now that they have the internet to use for their various con games.

Since the coming of social media, a new con game involves making up false scenarios to attract attention and getting a lot of “hits”, or going viral, in order to sell ads and make money off of spreading the false information. An example is the widespread use of false stories about people or especially children being hurt by vaccines. The vast majority of these tales are totally made up in order to attract hits on social media. If you see anything about vaccines on social media, be sure to fact check it on a reputable web site, like WebMD or the CDC.

Another disturbing development is the use of “disinformation” by politicians and political parties. Politicians are not doctors or scientists. They ARE desperately trying to change public opinion and will use any means to do so, including disinformation. Please fact check anything you hear from a politician.

The vaccine disinformation is a particularly dangerous problem, because the good information from doctors and scientists is vastly out-numbered by the thousands of false information items propagated by internet trolls who have nothing else to do with their time. People have a natural tendency to believe something they see over and over (“I’ve seen that hundreds of times so it must be true”). Unfortunately,  social media makes it very easy to repeat a false message hundreds, or thousands, of times. 

Efforts like this web page and other medical web sites have tried to offer more accurate information, but it is a tough battle. Recently, the Pediatric News, along with several other medical media leaders, have teamed up to join a public service campaign called VaxFacts. The goal is to provide facts and tools to help consumers make informed decisions about vaccines. The campaign is largely assisted by a browser extension called HealthGuard, that flags health hoaxes, and provides “credibility ratings” for hundreds of health-related web sites. It is part of a larger service called NewsGuard, which combats misinformation in the news. Just google “VaxFacts” or “HealthGuard”.

© Rick Voakes 2021