We live at a time where near limitless information is available to us at the touch of a button. Shouldn’t access to endless information lead to widespread understanding?
Growing up, I would always hear the sentiment “you shouldn’t trust anything you read on the internet”. However, the internet has changed. Accurate, up to date and contextualized health and science information is available online. The problem is, clicking on this link is just as easy as one to a baseless claim, misleading misinterpretation of data, or blatant lie. Unfortunately, misleading and grandiose claims of scary sounding black and white thinking are what spreads like wildfire across social media. One report found false information spread on Twitter 6 times faster than factual information.1 Another report found that misinformation on Facebook got 6 times more clicks than factual news,2 before the accounts of these researchers and their access to data for research was disabled by Facebook.3
Of particular detriment to health and science information online is that reporting which is accurate, balanced and nuanced is not what gets clicks. Black and white claims of doom and gloom or confirmation of a certain demographic’s worldview are what does. This drives those searching for answers online in the exact opposite direction of accurate science information.
In many cases, the internet is the only way someone can access accurate information in their community, and it is often where we will turn for answers. Without the tools to recognize baseless claims, misinterpretations or blatant lies, who can blame anyone for coming to believe something untrue?
Headlines can often be misleading, and it may be easier to be led astray than you might think. For example, take the apparent dichotomy between COVID-19 vaccines being “safe and effective” and news of “breakthrough infections” or “blood clots”. Does this mean these vaccines are useless and dangerous? Science and medicine do not operate in black and white terms. Vaccination aims to give the body a head start in the fight against infection. The amount of virus you are exposed to and the state of your innate immunity at the time of exposure determine how fast your body will stop the virus in its tracks. In September of 2021, you were 5.8 times more likely to stomp it out before you get symptoms when vaccinated.3 If you don’t fight it off before it replicates enough to make you symptomatic (“breaks through”) and you come down with COVID-19, your chances of being overcome with it to the point of hospitalization or death were 14 times less likely when vaccinated.4 Despite this, when looking at a population of hundreds of millions of people you will inevitably see breakthrough infections and adverse reactions to the vaccine, despite being very safe and phenomenally efficacious.5
In a world which was lived almost exclusively online during some periods of the pandemic, people were at the mercy of what they are exposed to online more than ever. Even without lockdowns, we increasingly live online for socializing, working, and going to school. Importantly, we turn to the internet to learn when we have a question. Because of this, perhaps one of the most important goals of modern education should be to give people the skills to distinguish high quality, accurate or factual information online from low quality, misleading or untrue claims.
Of course, there is much more to the story than distinguishing fact from fiction. In an increasingly polarized and tension-filled political landscape often times centered around questions of science and conspiracy, our interpretation of what we read may be biased by our political preferences and worldview whether we know it or not.
With that, I leave you with tips for distinguishing scientific misinformation from credible information, as well as how to approach conversations with others around misinformation.
The following questions have helped me evaluate claims I encounter online:
- What is the claim? Is the claim a black and white statement? Is it an attention-grabbing, scary sounding claim that may be exaggerated or out of context?
- What is the context (full body of evidence)? Does the claim counter what most experts in this field believe? Is the claim countered by other well-designed studies or strong arguments by experts in the field?
- Who is making the claim? Is the subject making the claim a reputable source for what they are saying? Does the subject have a track record of any extreme views which makes them an outlier in their field? Take into account any history of extreme views.
- Who posted it? Is the publisher a reputable source for the information they are reporting on? Take into consideration any bias or incentives the publisher may have.
How should we approach conversations around medical or scientific misinformation?
- Stay calm and listen before you speak.
- Acknowledge their fears and try to understand that they may have a different perspective due to different life experiences or cultural values they have inherited.
- Honesty and transparency. To use misleading arguments or to stretch the truth to change their mind is morally wrong and may lead to a lack of trust.
- Assume good intentions and offer unconditional positive regard.
- Work to persuade, however avoid coercion or claims of authority. Build trust.