Fake news is getting a lot of attention lately. And fake news, especially when it comes to health, can be extremely damaging as people may suffer or be harmed as a result of misleading or incorrect information. Social media makes it extremely easy to spread this misinformation, making a bad situation even worse. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen misleading health information shared on social media.
You often don’t even need to open an article or site to know that the information is not legit. But sometimes it’s easy to be fooled. Read on to learn how to spot misleading health information and improve your personal health literacy.
How to spot fake health claims
1. Beware of catchy clickbait titles and images
Read past the headline or title! And be cautious of articles that use photos unconnected to the story. For example, if you do a reverse search of the image using Google (right-click on the image and choose to search Google) and find that the image appears on a lot of stories about many different topics, there’s a higher chance that it’s not actually an image taken of the story itself.
2. Pay attention to the domain and URL
Established organizations usually own their own domains and have a standard look you are probably familiar with. Sites with endings such as “.com.co” should make you think twice.
3. Be critical and ask questions
If it’s described as “the secret even doctors won’t tell you,” be wary. A lot of health information is confusing and many conflicting claims may be circulating. Learn questions to evaluate the reliability of online information.
Being curious leads us to explore, investigate and learn. Curiosity gives us the drive and motivation to acquire valuable health information by questioning expert sources and unravelling new subject areas. Find the things that motivate you to continue, and ask for clarification if something doesn’t make sense.
4. Check the publishing date, credentials and references
You want the most current information (ideally less than three years old). The article should be written by a health professional and the author’s credentials should be listed. Check to see if the website references research articles or organizations to back up its health information. The bigger the claim, the more evidence you need to see that it’s true. You can also read the “About Us” section to find out more about the organization.
5. Do the research
When something piques your interest, research it! While it may seem difficult to sift through the wealth of information available at our fingertips, I highly encourage you to explore reliable websites. Some credible sources include not-for-profit organizations, government health agencies, and educational institutions. Here are some to use as a starting place:
- UBC Human Resources – Staff & Faculty Health
- Workhealthlife by Shepell
- Health Canada
- Government of Canada – Healthy Canadians
- Heart and Stroke Foundation
- Canadian Mental Health Association
- Dietitians of Canada
6. Beware of confirmation bias
We are often drawn to things that reinforce the way we see the world, how we feel about certain issues and our personal connections to certain health issues. These misleading articles or stories are designed to stir up emotion in readers.
7. Trust your instincts
Ask yourself if the finding is really plausible. If the claim seems too good to be true, is very drastic in the way it’s portrayed or written, or makes unsupported causation conclusions, then it’s likely over-exaggerated.
8. Think before you share!
If you can’t be sure that the information is true, evidence-based and free of unsupported claims, think twice before sharing a link or sending it on to others – which could have unintended consequences.
What exactly is health literacy and why is it important?
The Public Health Agency of Canada defines health literacy as “the ability to access, comprehend, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course.”
To put it more simply, health literacy means being able to obtain and understand information relating to our health. We need to be critical when looking at health claims and advertising presented to us. Some health claims are based on research and evidence, while other claims are inaccurate and unsupported (and, in some cases, can be dangerous).
Studies show that people with higher health literacy are healthier. When you are able to understand and use health information, you have the important elements in place to build a healthy lifestyle (including taking preventive measures to avoid illness and knowing how and when to seek medical care).