Fake health news stories

Research & Insights

Fake health news stories: how to spot them

Some telltale signs an online health story might not be true and where to go for credible information.         

Gina Flaxman 
February 2019

Eating bananas with brown spots prevents cancer, consuming pomegranates cures diabetes, detoxes cleanse your body… it seems there’s a new health claim being shared online every day, which often turns out to be false.

When we have an unexpected symptom or want to start a new health kick, one of the easiest ways to learn more about it is with a quick internet search. A UK study found we’re more likely to we go online with our symptoms before consulting our GP, pharmacist, partner, family or friends. Your doctor is the best source of health information but if you do want to find resources online, it helps to know where to find trustworthy information.

A UK analysis of the 20 most-shared articles on Facebook in 2016 with the word ‘cancer’ in the title found more than half contained claims that were discredited by doctors and health authorities. That year’s most popular story on Facebook containing the word ‘cancer’, ‘Dandelion weed can boost your immune system and cure cancer’, received more than 1.4 million likes, shares and comments. But the study the story cites hasn’t yet produced any results.

“As a GP, I often have patients asking me about concerning recommendations that have been driven through social media,” says Dr Chris Moy, who is chair of the Australian Medical Association’s (AMA) Ethics and Medico-legal Committee and oversees the AMA’s social media policy. “For many people [I see] it’s their main source of news, but there’s no accountability and no scientific checks” that these tests and treatments work and are safe.

What to look out for

You can’t always tell whether a story is legitimate, but here are some signs that it might be a hoax.

  • It’s a really massive health claim. Beware of a breakthrough that sounds truly amazing. “If it looks too good to be true, it usually is,” says Dr Moy. Science isn’t about exciting headlines, it’s about rigorous research, so just because a story has been liked and shared by thousands doesn’t make it true. This is particularly the case with claims of a cure for diseases such as cancer and HIV – this would be a major worldwide event covered by every news outlet.
  • It’s a health claim made by one website. Check the credibility of the information’s source and whether it has been reported anywhere else. If it’s only being reported by one obscure website, it’s probably a hoax.
  • There’s a vested interest. This can be overt, with a website asking you to pay money in exchange for a cure, or more subtle. But if there’s any payment involved, be wary.
    If there are any products being sold on the article’s website, even if they’re seemingly unrelated like vitamins, the person spruiking the information has a vested interest in you buying into the article’s claims.
    And social media influencers may not have any health qualifications and may be endorsing their own business or being paid to endorse a product without you being aware of it. Some concerning claims of health influencers include recommending everyone should cut out an entire food group such as dairy or gluten even if they don’t have a sensitivity to them, promoting a fad diet not backed up by science, or posting about the varied benefits of a superfood.
    You should discuss any major changes to your lifestyle with a health professional.
  • It’s only 1 study. “A treatment must be based on science and that requires lots of studies. One is not enough,” says Dr Moy. You can also check whether the study’s source is a respected, peer-reviewed journal or is funded by an organisation that also sells products. If you can’t find a source within the article to check, it’s not a good sign.

If you think a claim might be fake health news, you can run a check on fact-checking website Snopes or ask your GP.

Where to go for quality health info

For credible health information, Dr Moy says your first port of call should be your GP. If you want to look online, he says the non-profit NPS Medicinewise and its initiative Choosing Wisely Australia have great fact sheets for general issues such as fatigue and back pain.

If you have a specific condition, like asthma, make sure your information comes either from a specialist or the official Australian association for that condition. Cancer Council Australia has debunked cancer claims on their website iheard.

Other credible online sources are the government websites Health Direct and Better Health Channel.

The take-home

The thing to remember, says Dr Moy, is there are no miracle cures.

“People with chronic conditions are desperate for answers so it’s easy for them to be conned.”

But, he says, even with general problems such as tiredness, “Many of my patients are willing to spend thousands on a treatment that has serious side effects or won’t help, but if the solution is something that requires some work on their part, they’re not so keen. People want that quick fix, that easy answer.”

With many health complaints, he says part of the solution is usually to get back to basics: limit alcohol, eat healthily, exercise and don’t smoke

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