During this global pandemic, there’s a lot of wild and wacky news out there in the world. This infographic from the International Federation of Library Association and Institutions gives some handy tips for separating the facts from the crap. In this post, I’ll go through those tips with respect to spotting fake health news.
Factors to consider
Consider the Source
Is an article coming from a mainstream news outlet or one that you’ve never heard of? For all that people may question the mainstream media, they often have journalists that regularly cover health news, plus they have the connections to be able to get interviews with good sources.
Have a look at some of the other articles coming from the same news outlet. Do you notice a pattern of bias, whether that’s political, anti-mainstream medicine, or something else? If so, does that bias likely extend to the article you’re reading?
When it comes to biased sources reporting on governments’ pandemic responses, what appears to be a strongly pro-government media stance across the board should probably be more concerning than what appears to be an anti-government stance. The reason a free press is so important is to hold governments to account; that’s why tyrants always try to silence the press. If a news outlet is blowing sunshine up a government’s butt, regardless of the political leaning, that should be a red flag. No government’s pandemic response is going to be perfect, and the media should be asking tough questions.
Social media should not be considered a reliable place to get health news, unless you’re clicking through to stories published on reputable sites. If you’re getting news from social media, it’s probably a good idea to have your BS meter turned way up.
Also, keep in mind that anything you’re getting for “free” is never actually free.
A lot of us skim when we’re reading. It’s easy to read the headline and the first paragraph or two, accept it, and move on to the next headline. The problem is, the headline may not accurately reflect what’s in the story.
Both the proliferation of news outlets and the expectation that content should be available for free online have helped to feed into the practice of using click-bait headlines. Basically, that’s a headline that’s designed to grab your attention so that you click on it, you get shown some ads, and the website makes a few cents. Seeing a lot of these types of headlines can give a very skewed perspective on what’s going on.
Just because the clickbait is there doesn’t mean you have to click on it.& There are more reasonable options available, so hunt around, and when you find a good one, stick to it.
Check the author
Do you know anything about the author and their background? This is less of an issue with reliable news outlets who are presumably being careful about the writers they hire.
If the content is in another format, like tv or other video content, who’s doing the talking? Is there a reason why they should be considered a reliable source of information? Consider whether they are delivering basic reporting of facts, more in-depth journalistic analysis, or opinions. There’s nothing wrong with opinion pieces, but if those opinions are taken as fact by the audience, that’s a problem. Opinions should be treated as one individual’s viewpoint that may have little to nothing to do with objective facts. It may be a very interesting viewpoint, but it shouldn’t be treated the same way as factual reporting.
Conspiracy theory proponents often claim to talk authoritatively about things outside their area of knowledge. If someone is claiming that 5G causes COVID, is there actually a reason to think they know what they’re talking about?
When it comes to health news, unless the author has a background in health care, they need to cite sources. For example, they may interview someone who knows what they’re talking about or cite material from a major health organization. But if a news source or politician is talking about the public health implications of reopening economies without making any reference to public health input, your best bet is to assume they’re talking out of their ass.
While the use of anonymous sources has been criticized of late, they can yield valuable information, such as a hospital or long-term care facility worker revealing that staff don’t have sufficient personal protective equipment, but that person’s job would be at risk if their identity was revealed.
Sometimes it’s not the media coverage that’s fake, but rather there are inaccuracies in the information that they’re getting from their sources. If those sources are off-handedly speculating about treatments for COVID-19, that’s not fact, it’s off-handed speculation. However, if the source of the speculation is publicly trusted, that information may be taken as truth when in reality it’s no such thing.
If you’re catching a soundbite on social media of something that was said during a press briefing by public health officials or political leaders, that may not be enough to get the proper context. See if you can find a longer clip or the full recording. This is particularly important when there are conflicting interpretations in the news of what was said.
Be particularly wary of broad claims with no specifics to back them up. They may sound impressive, but the specifics just aren’t there, so you can’t verify them.
Check the date
The body of knowledge about the novel coronavirus is evolving rapidly. Articles don’t have to be very old before they can no longer be considered current.
Is it a joke?
Usually, satire is fairly obvious, but not always. If something seems too over the top, it may not be intended to be serious. In relation to health news, this probably isn’t that much of an issue.
Check your biases
People have all kinds of views on mainstream medicine that may colour how they interpret health news. Political bias can also be an issue. Government leaders, regardless of their political leanings, aren’t qualified to talk about health matters unless they’re getting their information from public health officials. Even if you favour a politician ideologically, it’s still important to consider whether they have the background knowledge to support what they’re saying. If it’s not clear where their public health information is coming from, they may be sharing opinions rather than stating facts, and those are two very different things.
Ask the expert
The infographic suggests asking a librarian, but that’s not particularly accessible these days. There are a lot of fact-checking websites, though; these may be helpful in terms of evaluating statements coming from politicians about the pandemic. When it comes to public health experts, the World Health Organization is a good place to go for information. Despite the U.S. decision to cut off funding, the WHO is still the organization that is the most in the know about what’s happening with this pandemic on a global scale. Your national and local public health authorities are also a good place to go.
Democracy and a free press
A free press is an essential part of democracy. Wikiquote offers the following from Thomas Jefferson:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
“Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.“
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.“
Managing how we handle news
In addition to those tips, from a mental health perspective, I think it’s important to set boundaries around news consumption. The internet makes it very easy to get sucked down rabbit holes, especially when it comes to fake health news. I’ve limited myself to one news outlet that I consider trustworthy, and I check it once a day for no more than half an hour.
Above all, put on your critical thinking hat, have a BS filter, and be skeptical about where information came from. Recognize that just because someone’s talking about a topic doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.
What’s your approach been to accessing news in the time of coronavirus?
Writing about science and debunking pseudoscience makes my heart sing! Visit the How to Spot Pseudoscience to explore other Science Corner posts on Mental Health @ Home.