Blog post by Lucy Liu, NU ’22
In today’s digital era, information spreads across the globe faster than ever. The internet has gifted society with many benefits including faster connectivity, accessible entertainment, increased business, and especially currently, remote work and education. These gains, however, do not come without a cost, and it is well-known that social media and increased usage of digital devices have had detrimental effects on individuals’ daily lives. One of the greatest dangers of the internet age is the spread of false information – especially that of health-related issues. From anti-vaccination attitudes to most recently, the struggles with containing the coronavirus pandemic, misinformation of health topics has burdened the public health system for decades and has only gotten worse with the entering of the internet age.
Approximately 80% of internet users seek health information online. As more people turn to the internet to look for answers to their health issues, the amount of false information online must be monitored. From a study done by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers found that “false news spreads more rapidly on the social network Twitter than real news does”. Oftentimes false news may have more enticing stories that people tend to share, leading to the extensive reach of incorrect information. Misinformation can also arise when people have unanswered questions and look to the internet for simple, accessible “solutions” like natural remedies or news about COVID-19.
Additionally, misinformation can spread as friends and family tend to trust information shared by members within their communities. Slightly different from misinformation, disinformation is the intentional spread of misleading information, formulated by a group with an underlying agenda. While these two types of false information differ in intent, they both have the potential to become a threat to public health if spread enough.
Many ways information, factual or not, can make an impact is through the dispersion of echo chambers. One of the most well-known examples is the anti-vaccine movement, which originated from the retracted study published in 1998 by The Lancet. The study falsely claimed that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, which has since been disproven by multiple credible sources including the CDC, Mayo Clinic, and Autism Speaks. Unfortunately, the publishing of the 1998 study and its late retraction in 2010 has created an anti-vaccine attitude among a small yet impactful group. While many diseases had been eradicated, there has been a resurgence in preventable diseases due to travelling and anti-vaccine hotspots. In 2014, a measles outbreak at Disneyland in California infected over 50 people, and the initial spread was mostly caused by children who were unvaccinated. In January 2019, a measles outbreak cost the Clark County, Washington public health system almost $865,000 to respond to what could’ve been a preventable incident had vaccines been more common in these communities.
In 2015, a report by the National Institute of Reproductive Health found that crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) falsely tell those who come in that abortion is linked to infertility, breast cancer, and mental health issues. These CPCs bill themselves as nonprofits providing support for women with unwanted pregnancies. The volunteers and staff, however, are not medical providers and are usually against abortion. These fake clinics are a clear example of disinformation and are overtaking real abortion clinics that are diminishing in number.
Unfortunately, the list of health misinformation online is abundant. In 2019, the most viral topics included fluoride and cancer, “Big Pharma” and their secret cure for cancer, the cancer industry busy with money instead of looking for a cure, and unproven cures for cancer (such as marijuana). Cancer seemed to be a trend, which can also be seen in those WebMD sources that led people to believing their harmless anomalies could be cancer.
Currently, the latest health misinformation has centered around COVID-19. As no news to anyone, the United States has greatly struggled to contain the coronavirus. Cases in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and many other states continue to rise as many other countries have been contained for months already. The coronavirus pandemic not only highlighted the issues within the US healthcare system itself, but it also revealed the true danger that misinformation can pose.
Understandably, an emergency situation like a pandemic will automatically lend itself to a lack of readily available information. With a new unique virus moving quickly throughout the globe, people turned to any sources that would provide updates on the spread of the disease. This gap in knowledge in turn allowed for multiple opportunities for false information to escalate, leaving health professionals scrambling to debunk unsolicited claims on top of caring for patients with and without COVID-19 and finding potential treatments. While misinformation through any source can proliferate into a threat to public health, false insight from a person of power can exponentially exacerbate the situation.
From the beginning, President Trump downplayed the urgency in responding to the spread of COVID-19. He dismissed evidence and dismantled the plan that was in place to prepare specifically for pandemics. Although the Trump administration’s response was ineffectual to containing the pandemic, the president’s words and actions effectively falsely informed many Americans. Back on February 26th, 2020, Trump predicted, “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear”. At a rally in South Carolina, Trump referenced one of his supporters who claimed that the coronavirus is the Democrats’ “new hoax”. On March 9th, Trump compared the common flu to the coronavirus, spreading the false idea that the two diseases are similar. Furthermore, Trump incorrectly announced that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine was FDA-approved to treat COVID-19. This false claim also caused shortages for people who needed the drug for lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune diseases. Coming from the Trump administration, this stream of disinformation backs false theories with institutional legitimacy, leading to institutional forms of misinformation in public health. Without strong, trusted leadership during a global emergency, the public struggles to know what they should follow.
While the failure to contain the virus is a result of many additional factors such as an inefficient healthcare system, systemic racism, and inadequate governance, misinformation plays a large role within these subsections of issues that need to be addressed as well. Fundamentally, misinformation comes from a lack of health literacy and from spreading false data by sources that people trust – or at least trust more than health professionals. In a 2016 Gallup report, only 39% of individuals in the US agreed that they had confidence in the medical system (which had only increased by one percent since 2006). Local Health Departments (LHDs) can launch campaigns to inform the public on how to find evidence-based results, how to identify mis- and dis-information, and how to fact-check effectively. LHDs could also establish relationships with more local media outlets as local sources are more trusted than national sources. LHDs can help prevent media outlets from spreading false information by working closely within the community and by building trust with the people.
In addition, according to a recent Gallup poll, nursing has been rated the highest out of all professions for having “high levels of honesty and ethics”. For 16 years, nursing has taken the lead in the most trusted profession, which provides a great opportunity for the public health field to ensure proper education and training in nurses to help combat the spread of misinformation. Furthermore, a 2013 Social Work Research study revealed that patients trust their healthcare providers and have better outcomes when the providers have a shared background. Having commonalities allows the patient to feel more comfortable in sharing more information about their conditions, which in turn allows the provider to give a better diagnosis and treatment. While having similarities plays a role, the greater issue in this barrier is due to the oversight of marginalized communities. Minorities and lower income individuals have faced a history of discrimination and injustice, not excluding within healthcare. This obstacle points to systemic racism, which needs to be addressed in order for all people to feel heard and able to trust health workers to provide the best care – instead of going to the internet. Another barrier encountered by marginalized communities is that the US healthcare system itself is non-inclusive, leaving many Americans unable to afford health insurance.
Overall, there are many fundamental issues that must be undertaken first in order for a trustworthy healthcare system to become a reality. Even then, however, health information, misinformation, and disinformation online will continue to circulate through media, the internet, and within echo chambers. During this difficult time with little trust in our nation’s leader, the public needs to become more educated in health literacy and more wary of the sources they use. Although the influx of misinformation has contributed to a great detour in the containment of COVID-19 for the United States, there have also been hopeful instances of institutional change during this time. One of those changes can be a more inclusive healthcare system and another, out of the many that need to be made, could normalize health literacy for the public.
Lucy Liu is a member of the Class of 2022, majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Spanish. She joined GlobeMed in her freshman year and is currently serving as the co-director of advocacy.