What’s In A Headline?: Medical Misinformation

Social media has contributed to medical misinformation in the COVID-19 pandemic.

If there’s any safe way to seek out news on the Internet, scrollable outlets aren’t it. When there is always another headline, another article, our understanding of recent events is often left to whatever attention-grabbing title and blurb that gets pulled into the meta description.

That is a dangerous habit in any situation, but it may be especially harmful when the topics appear to offer medical advice. It’s a tactic that’s become more common even on reputable sources and websites as they clamor for the clicks that keep them alive.

Do Vitamin D Supplements Reduce Cancer, Cardiovascular Risk?

Asking a question as a headline is the exact kind of leading title that has become all too common in the modern age. Scroll any of the leading English language news websites in the US and you’ll likely see plenty using a similar tactic, especially on stories below the fold.

In this case, MedicalNewsToday.com used the above header as the page title, but took a big step back with the actual story title as it appears on the page. Here, it’s “Vitamin D supplements, heart health, and cancer risk”. No leading question and the variables are neatly divided by tidy commas.

After briefly explaining how Vitamin D functions in the body, the article distills the bulk of what you need to know in a single sentence: “[A recent RCT study] found no association between Vitamin D supplementation and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer”.

The actual study offers a deep dive into the five-year random control trial which states unequivocally that “Vitamin D supplementation did not lower the incidence of major [cardiovascular] events or invasive cancer among older adults…”.

Misinformation on Social Media

It might be unfair to lump this type of article with outright medical misinformation, but the line is blurry. Today, the world is facing the consequences of misinformation propagated on social media platforms and podcasts that have likely extended the pandemic and costs tens of thousands of lives unnecessarily.

But medical misinformation didn’t start with COVID-19. It made the Ebola response more difficult and misinformation around infant and youth vaccinations has caused a resurgence in diseases like smallpox and measles that were all but eradicated in the United States.

It could be argued that allowing stories like the Vitamin D article mentioned above to become regular fare on even reputable sites led to an eventual slide. In the race to match the flashy and alarming headlines of less-than-trustworthy websites, and to fight for ad dollars, even quality news and medical organizations lowered their standards and changed the way they presented information. That unleashed a flood of misinformation and has made it harder for readers to differentiate between fact and fiction.

Social Media and Celebrity Misinformation

A 2020 report from Scientific American examined how social media platforms and the high-profile users that occupy them impacted the spread of COVID-19. It found that a collection of politicians, celebrities, and “prominent figures” made up around 20% of misleading COVID-19 claims but accounted for 69% of total social media engagement. To put it more simply, not all sources of misinformation have the same impact; a single tweet or Instagram from one of these influential accounts causes more discussion, confirmation, and harm than a normal account.

The Line Between Misleading and Misinformation

Does Vitamin D lower the risk of cancer? No, and that information is available. Leading questions, click-bait articles, and other low standards of print and digital media make it more difficult for readers to understand and digest news and information, especially in the context of infinitely scrollable social media platforms. That single headline may quickly become fact, no matter what research supports it or the source from which it is reported.

Avoiding Misinformation

There are a few ways to cut down on the amount of misinformation we read online.

  • Avoid using infinite-scroll or timeline-based social sites as sources of news (basically, stay of Facebook and Twitter)
  • If the article headline is a question, skip it (And yes, that means you shouldn’t be reading this)
  • Consider signing up for daily news emails from a trusted source instead of scrolling or searching to find the latest news
  • Check sources before resharing content on social media (or simply don’t reshare it)

Stay up to date on cancer prevention news and efforts with the Less Cancer Journal, featuring contributors like Mindi Messmer and Less Cancer founder Bill Couzens.

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