Overview of misinformation and public health

By Francisco Stefano – Director

Scientific and technological advances have caused a global increase in the quality of life and health of the population and the public integrates the information of science and technology into their beliefs and personal values ​​to make important decisions in both their health a well as in other aspects of daily life such as social behavior, business or work.

How information is acquired and how the public incorporates it, is a terrain of high tension. Information on scientific or technological progress is issued with a particular jargon from a highly specialized environment and transmitted by an intermediary (generally a journalist) with limited knowledge on the subject. The intermediary reformulates the message received according to its own editorial rules and strives to transform the information into enticing “news”. This tension reaches high limits in those circumstances in which people face extraordinary events or circumstances such as the current pandemic. The communication of the scientific or technological facts reaches a peculiar value, which requires truthfulness and clarity. 

At the beginning of this century, social networks on the Internet have introduced new forms of broadcasting and receiving news, considerably increasing the amount of news in circulation and the speed by which they reach new receivers that simultaneously become senders of what has been received. This increase in news traffic has been accompanied by an increment in news items containing erroneous or malicious information.

A study carried out by the German scientist Joachim Allgaier1 who made a random sample of videos published on YouTube with the theme of climate change, found that 50% of the sample reported that the causes of climate change are not related to human activity and ascribed to a conspiratorial fable that tried to stop progress or else something natural independent of human activity.

Similar examples that show the ease of distributing erroneous or false information and the damage that this causes can be found in the work of Andrew Wakefield and colleagues2. In 1998 they published in one of the most important medical journals (The Lancet) a study that tried to show that the measles vaccine could cause autism in children who received. Later work showed that in this study the data had been manipulated with possible economic interest, as the main author was an advisor to the lawyers sponsoring a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company that produced the vaccine.

Examples like these illustrate the difficulties people or social groups have in differentiating what is based on real events from fictitious “news”.

It is a generalized opinion that the communication of the scientific fact can be carried out in a simple way, assuming that the scientific “truth” is immutable and therefore the simple exposition of the facts is enough for the lay person to be able to incorporate it into his baggage of knowledge and use it to take reasonable conduct in the field of the news received. However it is not always so. By its very nature, science produces complex facts, subject to scrutiny and challenged by alternative explanations.

Therefore the information must be both simple in its complexity and contain the necessary nuances to clearly show its strengths and weaknesses. To these intrinsic contents, trust in the transmission source must be added.

Among the lessons that the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving us, there is the damage caused by both the excess and the falsification of technical or scientific information. Conspiracy theories about the origin or effectiveness of prevention (masks, social distancing, vaccines) have circulated profusely and hurt health efforts to stop the global spread of the virus. This experience reevaluates the need to face the issue of information gaps in our daily lives.

As stated by the National Academy of Science3, USA, a marked increase in fake news, misinformation has reached crisis proportions, posing risks to social and political peace and threatens public health. 

Also ALLEA4, (All European Academies) has called for a coordinated activity to reduce the spread of fake news.  

Both the editors of scientific journals and social platforms are developing policies that seek to reduce the presence of false information in their publications.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media have implemented rules to prevent and prosecute these activities.

Google Chrome has a Fact check tools that comprises a Fact Check Explorer and Fact Check Markup Tool. These tools facilitate the search of possible misinformation. (https://toolbox.google.com/factcheck/explorer)

  • The following advices published in Nature5 can help to identify probable misinformation:  

Source suspicion. Vague, untraceable sources, such as ‘a doctor friend of a friend’ or ‘scientists say’ without further details, should ring alarm bells.

Bad language. Most trustworthy sources are regular communicators, so poor spelling, grammar or punctuation are grounds for suspicion.

Emotional contagion. If something makes you angry or overjoyed, be on your guard. Miscreants know that messages that trigger strong emotions get shared the most.

News gold or fool’s gold? Genuine scoops are rare. If information is reported by only one source, beware — especially if it suggests that something is being hidden from you.

False accounting. Use of fake social-media accounts, such as @BBCNewsTonight, is a classic trick. Look out for misleading images and bogus web addresses, too.

Oversharing. If someone urges you to share their sensational news, they might just want a share of the resulting advertising revenue.

Follow the money. Think about who stands to gain from you believing extraordinary claims.

Fact-check check. Go past the headlines and read a story to the end. If it sounds dubious, search fact-checking websites to see whether it has already been debunked.

Bibliography

1.- Allgaier Joachim, Science and Environmental Communication on YouTube: Strategically Distorted Communications in Online Videos on Climate Change and Climate Engineering, Frontiers in Communication, 4, 36 (2019), https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomm.2019.00036/full 

    

2.- Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, Linnell J, Casson DM, Malik M, et al. Ileal-lymphoid- nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet. 1998; 351: 637–41.

3.- Jevin D. West and Carl T. Bergstrom Misinformation in and about science  PNAS April 13, 2021 118 (15) e1912444117

 

4.- ALLEA (2021). Fact or Fake? Tackling Science Disinformation. ALLEA Discussion Paper, 5. Berlin. DOI: 10.26356/fact-or-fake

https://allea.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Fact-or-Fake-Discussion-Paper.pdf

5.- Fleming Nic, EIGHT WAYS TO SPOT MISINFORMATION

 Nature Nature 583, 155-156 (2020)

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