Many people have spent more time than usual online during the COVID-19 epidemic. Throughout the pandemic, social media offered opportunities for sorely needed personal connections. It’s also become quite common now to turn to the internet for information about symptoms you may be experiencing or a new diagnosis for yourself or a family member. However, not all sources on the internet are equal, and there is as much bad information as there is good.
“Health misinformation has reached nearly every corner of our society—and it poses an increasing danger to us and to our loved ones,” warns U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. “False or misleading information about diseases, illnesses, potential treatments and cures, vaccines, diets and cosmetic procedures are causing people to make decisions that could have dangerous consequences for their health.”
Misinformation and the Internet
Sadly, there are people on the world wide web who purposefully design and spread information that they know to be false. The intentional dissemination of false or misleading information online is called “disinformation.”
Not all people who share misinformation online are malicious. Many people share health misinformation in an innocent, curious way. Maybe your aunt shared a post about the coronavirus vaccine being a secret way to microchip and track Americans, adding a note saying, “Wow, is this true? This is so scary.” The problem is, even if she meant only to question the information she shared, your aunt still re-posted that misinformation to all her followers. Some of them may then re-share it and so on and so on. The misinformation quickly spreads like a virus.
A lot of people might say they’ve “done their research” on a topic. But it’s worth pausing to consider what they think is research. A regular citizen really can’t meaningfully research a type of medicine. That would mean undertaking clinical trials and submitting data to a third party for verification. Really, they probably mean that they read a lot of things online and maybe watched some YouTube videos. This type of “research” isn’t really research at all and is subject to the existing biases and algorithms affecting the searcher.
So, how can you avoid sharing misinformation online?
The U.S. Office of the Surgeon General Offers these Tips to Consider Before You Share:
- Did you check with your local public health department or the CDC to see if there is any information about the claim that is being made?
- Did you ask your own doctor or other trained healthcare professional if they would consider the information to be valid?
- Did you type the claim into a search engine to see if it has been verified by a credible source? Credible sources include medical schools, branches of the government, universities, professional health organizations, and hospitals.
- Did you check out the “About Us” page on the website to see whether the source is trustworthy? Does the site have an editorial board? Is the information reviewed by experts before it is posted?
The bottom line when it comes to health information online is … if you aren’t sure, don’t share! You would never want health misinformation to negatively affect the decisions made by friends or family members, so share carefully when it comes to health information online.