Tag: misinformation

Lunchables, Diving Board, Fake News

Misinformation is easy to spread. I’d bet money we have all witnessed this phenomenon on social media. Let’s look back for a second to before these digital platforms arrived—the days of primary school gossip. You have visions of four square (not the app) and Lunchables, enviable amounts of free time and the all-classmates invited birthday parties? We told each other some weird tales. Our imaginations were churning, I don’t blame us. Now imagine giving the kid who claimed to be able to do ten mid-air flips off the diving board a microphone. And then another kid, or maybe even teacher, turns on the overhead PA system and broadcasts what the kid with the microphone is saying to the whole school. The information this prolific diver is claiming doesn’t change but it sure spreads faster, further, and seems a lot more official when amplified by technology (is audio equipment technology, for this metaphor I say, “yes”). Enter social media and ubiquitously referred to “fake news.”

And it’s like a pyramid scheme—no one thinks they’re the one getting duped. How can that be the case? What can we, both as health communicators and as information consumers, do about it? Here are some key concepts to whet your whistle: third-person effect, Spinoza, relationship currency. Those are some interest-piquing words right there.

Give a read to “Why we lie to ourselves and others about misinformation” by Dr. Southwell (who is the social marketing course instructor to two of this here blog’s bloggers, and who also just led an insightful guest lecture which Casey will tell you all about later in the week). If/when inspiration strikes, submit your ideas for the Rita Allen Foundation’s Misinformation Solutions Forum.

STI or STD: What Is The Difference?


If your work involves talking to people about sexual health, you must be talking to them about STDs. Or STIs. Or both. Right?

As the great STD-STI terminology challenge continues, just about everyone has had to choose one term or the other. Well, everyone except for the people who use both interchangeably to mean the same thing. Or those folks who use each in distinct ways to mean different things.

Many well-informed experts make absolutely no distinction between STI and STD. Others feel the distinctions are real and important.

For those who make a distinction, most would say STD describes a condition with visible signs and describable symptoms—a drip, an itch, a bump, fatigue. STI encompasses the broader spectrum of conditions both with and without symptoms.

There was some idea that using STI would make it clear to everyone that sexually transmitted conditions often have no symptoms. It might also lessen the stigma people frequently feel about having these conditions, making them more amenable to testing and treatment.

In actual practice, I’m not at all sure that’s happened. We now have reports that many young people believe STD refers to illnesses that can’t be cured, and STI refers to illnesses that can be.

There are sound reasons for choosing either term, or both. Which is working for you right now? Why is it best for your purposes? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES, is Senior Editor at ETR. You can view this article in its entirety at http://www.etr.org/blog/my-take-std-sti/

Signposts for Science News

When finding news about science and health is as easy as a tap of your fingertip, it’s easier than ever to be up to date on the latest discoveries or policy issues. Unfortunately, it is almost as easy to become misinformed. Follow these three tips to help become a savvy science news consumer.

  1. WARNING: Sources that use “cause.” A lot of times, news sources will simplify findings of a study to either make it sound more interesting or because the actual results are more nuanced and complex than what can fit into a short-form post. Because of this, you’ll see the internet peppered with inaccurate science and health news. For instance, there has been a lot of coverage on the how marijuana use is associated with psychiatric illness. While there are studies that find this association, some news sources go as far as to purport that “cannabis can trigger schizophrenia.” Most of these kinds of findings are actually correlational, which only means a relationship was found, not (necessarily) that one causes the other.
  2. CAUTION: Potential future therapies. As a science writer, I will admit I’m guilty of writing this one. Sometimes we get excited when we read news that a mechanism underlying Alzheimer’s disease was discovered, so we naturally search for the next step. Remember that research is slow, and while the human race has truly accomplished incredible things, even within the past ten years, don’t get your hopes up that a new discovery will mean you or your family’s health issues will be over soon.
  3. YIELD: Check your source’s source. We live in a fast-paced 24-hour news cycle world. This means journalists have to churn out information quickly and often. To meet all the demand, websites will cover the same stories, which is great because this means news can reach all different audiences (from tech-savvy consumers of Gizmodo, to moms skimming the AOL news headlines, to people paying subscriptions for New York Times online). However, if you really want to know what the original research is about, you need to go to the source, or at least the press release issued by the university or institution. Oftentimes, websites will link to each other instead of the original article or press release! This can turn into an interesting game of “telephone” where the original message gets passed on so many different times so that the first meaning is highly distorted.

Alarming Amount of Pregnant Woman Report Drinking Alcohol

Alcohol use during pregnancy is known to cause an increased risk of an assortment of complications, including miscarriage and stillbirth, yet CDC data revealed that pregnant women in the United States are choosing to ignore these precautions. The study showed that:

  • 1 in 10 pregnant women ages 18-44 reported consuming alcohol in the last 30 days.
  • One third of these women (3.1 percent) admitted to binge drinking, which is defined as four or more alcoholic beverages on one occasion.

Furthermore, researchers found that pregnant women reported a significantly higher rate of binge drinking (4.6 percent) than non-pregnant women (3.6 percent).

These results come as a shock, as drinking during pregnancy can cause adverse health effects for the baby, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). If a woman doesn’t drink during pregnancy, her child has zero risk of developing an FASD. So why are women putting both themselves and their babies at risk?

There are many possible reasons for this sudden increase in risky behavior. For some women, this might be an issue of misinformation or mixed messages from doctors, peers, and/or online sources. For others, it may be indication of an actual alcohol addiction problem.

Further research should be done to better understand the motives behind the sudden increase in this behavior; however, in the mean time, it is clear that more education and outreach is necessary to remind these women that “there is no known safe level of alcohol that can be consumed at any time during pregnancy.”

For more information on FASDs and the dangers of drinking while pregnant, visit: www.cdc.gov/fasd.

Everyone’s a Health Expert

These days, it’s not uncommon for people to connect via a variety of media and communication channels – websites, blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, Instagram – tools that allow people to not only network with each other, but spread ideas and exchange information. This system of “user-generated content” is a progressive way for people to make connections and learn – but what happens when the content is all a sham?


Vani Hari, the Food Babe blogger (photo from FoodBabe.com)

Recently, two “wellness gurus” have come under scrutiny: Vani Hari, the Food Babe blogger, and Belle Gibson, the blogger who claimed to have cured her terminal brain cancer through diet changes and other controversial alternative therapies (but later admitted she never had cancer). Both young, beautiful health advocates have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, as well as cookbooks and iPhone apps. Another characteristic the two have in common: neither has any form of education nor formal training in nutrition, health, or science; however, they’re more than willing to share their firm opinions and recommendations on food and health as if founded in evidence.

At what point did it become acceptable to act as an expert in a field you’re completely unqualified for? Similarly, at what point did it become acceptable for the general public to trust and follow these “advocates” as if they are equally knowledgeable as credentialed medical and nutrition professionals? Not only do these “celebrities” of health lessen the work of true professionals, but it also makes it far more challenging for the public to trust any source of information or respect the true relationships between diet and disease, which is still being rigorously researched.

While it is essential to have the right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas, I urge everyone to observe the credentials (or lack thereof) from those touting the next best magic-bullet cure or diet. Those of us working hard towards (or with) degrees from reputable institutions deserve respect for what we attempt to do, and the public deserves access to honest and reliable information without having to wade through the chaos of fraudulent or exaggerated claims.


Photo sources:

Featured image from the upcoming Australian Women’s Weekly article featuring Belle Gibson, via The Washington Post

Vani Hari on The Food Babe

Who are the victims of misinformation on indoor tanning?

Yesterday, Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York State attorney general, filed lawsuits against two indoor tanning salon chains. He accused them for not playing up the hazardous consequences, instead playing down the hazards of indoor tanning.

The adverse consequences of Indoor tanning are not questionable including premature aging of the skin and several types of skin cancer (the most lethal, melanoma). Many health agencies and experts warned about and proved the side effects of indoor tanning. According to a study, it is estimated that indoor tanning contributed to 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States every year.

However, these two popular indoor tanning salon chains—Portofino Spas and Total Tan—posted misinformation on their website to deceive their audience. “Conflicting data exist questioning the UV-melanoma relationship.” “Some independent dermatology researchers question whether UV and melanoma are related at all.”

Fortunately, there are state laws against engaging in deceptive business practices. The Total Tan and Portofino Spas will be punished because of their misinformation of indoor tanning on websites. However, the fact is not every piece of misinformation will be revised immediately and will raise awareness among the general public at a large scale.

Incorrect news can be spread via social media before the authoritative news agency has an opportunity to correct it. Even if the misinformation was once corrected, there is no guarantee that the correct news will reach the same population that the misreported version did.

What can be done to address misinformation problem?

Credit from: http://revivalfocusforum.com/2015/03/18/the-danger-of-misinformation/

Misinformation in Health Advertising

When was the last time you saw a TV commercial for the best new drug to cure your ______ condition? Sound too good to be true?

As consumers of health information and services, most of the population has to rely on the experts to tell them what is right for their health. Unfortunately, the source of that information may not have the consumer’s best interests in mind and may stretch the truth for their own financial gain.

Thankfully, there are FDA regulations in place to avoid this problem of misinformation in advertising, and researchers Southwell_B_8806-600like Dr. Brian Southwell of UNC, Duke, and RTI International (a man of many hats) are examining what the best approach is to remedy false or misleading ad exposure. Specifically, and with help of the FDA, Dr. Southwell and colleagues are attempting to figure out if corrective advertising works to counteract the initial deception.

These errors can be that of commission or omission, but unfortunately a lot of ideas in advertising are implied – which means it will be a lot harder to correct. Hopefully with the help of this research, consumers will be able to get the best (and correct) message from any attempts made to correct misinformation.

Learn more about Dr. Southwell’s work and research here,  and follow @MeasureRadio on Twitter to get a glimpse into his radio show, The Measure of Everyday Life, focusing on people, perceptions, and human behavior.

Featured image source: Yaz Lawsuit via Flickr.com

Misinformation Nation – Why Facts Fail Us Part 2

Last week, I wrote about sources of misinformation in public health, and this week, I’m shifting my attention to the cognitive mechanisms that support or perpetuate misinformation.

Social norms around everyday conversational conduct imply that content is true unless otherwise stated, so it’s difficult for people to identify misinformation without a correction or retraction. As Lewandowsky and colleagues so articulately write, “Belief is an inevitable consequence of—or, indeed, precursor to—comprehension.” Suspension of belief, prompted by substantial attention, significant implausibility of the message, or high levels of distrust toward the source, necessitates additional motivation and cognition.  When people do cognitively engage with information to determine whether it is true, they focus on whether the information is consistent with their other preconceived beliefs, forms a plausible gestalt, and originates with a trustworthy source. They also consider whether others seem to believe the information.

In neutral scenarios in which people have no reason to believe one set of statements is more or less accurate than another, retractions and corrections are rarely effective in reducing reliance on misinformation in decision-making. When media sources attempt to correct information by providing a retraction accompanied by an explanation, people become even more likely to rely on the misinformation.

There are a number of proposed explanations for how and why the brain rejects retractions. One hypothesis is that people build mental models of unfolding events, and if a retraction impacts a piece of information essential to their model of events, the event representation will only make sense if the false assumption is maintained. Next, retrieval failures such as misattribution of a piece of information’s source, and people may attribute information to an authoritative report rather than to a report that was subsequently retracted. Additionally, if statements directly or indirectly repeat false information in order to correct it, the misinformation becomes more familiar and coherent. Finally, because people do not generally like to be told what to think or do, social reactance may render retractions ineffective.

For a discussion of proactive and reactive strategies for reducing the impact of misinformation, check out my post next.

Information source: Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U., Seifert, C., Schwartz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Information and   its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106-131.

Image source: http://obrag.org/


Misinformation Nation – Why Facts Fail Us

Because information is the basis for the political and societal decisions that determine the fabric of society, misinformation can result in serious consequences in a range of domains, including health. Demonstrating this point, unsubstantiated claims of a link between vaccination and autism resulted in decreased vaccination and subsequent increases in vaccine-preventable disease.

What accounts for the spread of misinformation? Studies have indicated that people are most likely to pass on information if it elicits an emotional  response in the recipient regardless of the information’s truth. When parents who believe their children have developed autism as a result of vaccines present their beliefs as facts, for example, their claims are more likely to be repeated in popular TV, radio talk shows, TV dramas, and documentaries. People also tend to extract knowledge from sources that are overtly fictional. Marsh, Meade, and Roediger (2003) demonstrated that even when information from clearly fictitious stories contradicts common knowledge, people still use relied on it to respond to quiz questions.

There are also instances in which misinformation is intentionally manufactured. Though the public is generally aware that politicians are not always credible, they are often unable to distinguish between politicians’ inaccurate and accurate statements (Ramsay et al., 2010). Within 5 weeks of Sarah Palin posting a comment about “death panels” on Facebook, 86% of Americans had heard the death-panel claim. Among these, half either believed it or were not sure of its accuracy. Vested interest groups also disseminate misinformation, particularly in the realm of public health. In 2006, a U.S. federal court found that major cigarette companies had intentionally denied, distorted, and minimized the hazards of cigarette smoking (Smith et al., 2011).

Our information environment is ripe with potential for misinformation. Media can inadvertently oversimplify, misrepresent, or overdramatize scientific reporting, leading to misunderstanding. Additionally, unreliability proliferates many websites. A content analysis of the first 50 Web sites matching the search term “weight loss diets” revealed that only 3 delivered accurate dietary advice. Even so, the majority of Americans look for health information online (Fox & Jones, 2009).

For information on why and how our brains resist correction of misinformation, check out next week’s post.

Information source: Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U., Seifert, C., Schwartz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Information and   its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106-131.

Image source: http://obrag.org/