Separating Reality from Fake Health News

Tips on how to spot fake news
HoIFLA, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Read beyond

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?

Supporting sources

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?

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39 thoughts on “Separating Reality from Fake Health News”

  1. A very timely post. This part – “biased sources reporting on governments’ pandemic responses, what appears to be a pro-government media stance should probably be more concerning than what appears to be an anti-government stance” – made me think of our last UK elections. I was so, so angry with a lot of the tabloids (the ones in the same category, like sister companies) for the way they behaved, and so many were buying into it. That was pro-Boris and anti-Corbyn to a disgusting level, so we had likely very, very little objective news. Always need to consider the motives behind a sources, totally agree.x

  2. We used to have that inforgraphic up at the further education library where I used to work.

    Not sure I agree about pro-government news being more troubling than anti-government sources. I’ve seen some anti-lockdown stuff in the press about “our liberty is more important than a few people dying” and I don’t feel inclined to look favourably on it.

    My worry about fact-checking websites is that they just push the question off one level, so it’s not “Is this journalist right?” but “Is this fact-checker right?”

    1. Oh, there’s definitely problematic anti-government news. My line of thinking was that it seems unlikely for there to be a good journalistic reason to be pro-government rather than neutral, while being critical of government is not necessarily reflective of bias.

      Good point about fact-checking websites. In the current political climate in the U.S. it seems less about fact-checking journalists and more about fact-checking Trump. Regardless of his policies, the number of things that come out of his mouth that are blatantly untrue is inevitably going to drive the fact-checkking machine.

      1. I don’t get that there’s no reason to be pro-government. I think it’s possible, at least in theory, to take an approach that any government is acting appropriately in broad terms, even if certain things aren’t working properly. I don’t see that being supportive on one issue (lockdown) means that you’re automatically biased, especially as this is the type of issue where traditionally political parties and journalists do turn down some of their rhetoric and try to act together in the national interest instead of on party lines.

        True about Trump.

        1. Pro-action or pro-policy I can see. But pro-politician or pro-political party regardless of specific policies, along with overt blowing sunshine up a politician’s butt, seems to happen far more often than it should and yet audiences don’t seem to question it.

            1. it’s really bad in the U.S. Fox News is blatantly and often absurdly pro-Trump, and he frequently retweets their stories about him. I’ve heard the MSNBC network is just as bad on the other end of the political spectrum, but I haven’t seen enough to know.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. However, I think it is okay to also remain a bit open minded as well. I don’t know what this virus is, where it truly came from and how. I don’t just trust well it came from china. Okay how? Is it possibly man made because the way this virus acts is very scary. You can’t get immune to it even if you get it once, there are so many different symptoms and what seems to be strains. People are also questioning the governments or leaders because of the sudden lock down or lack of in other cases(taking too long to lock down) While they don’t have a vaccine for it yet and perhaps that is the only reason for the lock down (but they are considering opening society up again when a vaccine is far from being ready) but every flu season more people die from the flu and we don’t go on lock down. This is my most concern and thing I question most….most children seem to be immune to it. That is what gets the whole ‘population control’ conspiracy thoughts in my head because why kill off the youth? Even though yes few full healthy and young people are dying from the virus, the majority is still the elderly, people with underlyning health problems and places like Detroit here….China another that had too much of a population. And people especially elderly, underlying health problems etc all cost the government money. But in the same breath, I don’t know if that is 100% truth and just the normal conspiracies people like to throw around all the time.

    Either way no matter what it is it is scary and we need to remain safe. My worry is when they reopen society. When all these bars, restaurants, malls etc open up again people are gonna fly in there probably in the thousands because they are finally able to feel normal again and all those weeks being on lock down. I am like guys just because we open does not mean it’s completely safe or gone. Society could cause another lock down because again people are stupid and selfish. I am so glad I work the night shift and we are closed over night right now. Actually I wish we were closed all the time at night. That is the only good thing that came from this pandemic.

    1. Hopefully the politicians will listen to the public health people and be very slow and cautious about any reopening. I agree, opening up too much too soon is just going to lead to even more problems.

      1. I am not sure about Canada, but when the USA reopens everything they said it will be slowly and not completely. If numbers peak again all stores, bars etc will be able to shut it down again right away. Which is probably what will happen unfortunately.

  4. Rock Bollinger

    This advice is excellent, but sadly the people who most need to read it are those least likely to. I have family members who regularly get taken in by nonsense posted on social media. It’s just easier to ignore it than to keep trying to get them to think a bit more critically.

  5. I check our national site once a week now, not so much. I watch when there is news brought by our MP. Now were are almost in exit strategy. The whole long speech was held at 22pm (!) on a Friday. My baby bedtime didn’t allow to follow that as it took almost 2 hours and it was in 3 languages (we have 3 official languages). So next day I didn’t find the full stream anymore (!), I watched the morning news instead. To comment and to explain a very complicated scenario they didn’t invite a scientist!!! So now basically no one understands what is going to happen.
    So all that to say that when looking for info I try to check my sources. Otherwise this is a great learning school to see what is a good source and what not as there is so many information and you can compare.

    1. It seems to me like it’s mostly the U.S. that’s a mess of misinformation. Someone commented earlier about being open-minded to conspiracy theories, and I think that outlook isn’t that uncommon.

      1. That is so weird. On the other hand, we may not know what other info is spread. The statistics (I know, it’s an underestimation and not the Holy Grail either) tell me that in Russia (just an example) there aren’t that many cases of COVID. I wonder what information is being spread in other countries and languages we don’t understand. But that’s just curious me.
        Overall I think we need to find a credible source of info (like you posted) and we need to learn to live with some not-knowing and uncertainty. People sometimes will keep on clicking till they find ‘a cure’ to take the uncertainty ‘away’.

        1. Definitely. And the average person doesn’t have the background knowledge to properly evaluate a piece of information, but they will accept it based in what intuitively seems reasonable.

  6. An excellent guide on how to double check what we’re reading, especially during these troubling times. Boy some of the whoppers I’ve seen on the internet these days…!

  7. I think that the easiest way to spot real news is when somebody calls it fake news. If it’s pissing off somebody that much, there’s probably merit to it.

  8. Our MSM is dreadful for passing off fake news and readers (like my mum, lol) take it as gospel and they start passing this onto others. I have to keep reminding my mum when she googles anything – look for reliable sources i.e. NHS if it’s medical in the UK.

      1. Me too. If I see something on twitter I might check out the source. i.e. today someone tweeted an article that had a petition to sign (if you wanted to). When I looked at the newspaper article, it was 2018 so the petition would no longer be available and I tweeted that. Ooops, the lady with thousands of followers decided to message me saying: it’s my tweet and I’ll tweet what the f*** I want. Ouch! lol

  9. Another point…I think people are so easily convinced to believe other news or information is because the government and media has time and time again given us reason not to trust them 100%. Especially in the USA, most feel they are threatened in their own country and can’t trust most news sources because later something gets revealed from the real source. A perfect example would be the lies of the Iraq war. They were told by their government that this was a just war, that the USA needed to be there. Then later things like Wikileaks, Iraq Veterans against the war came out and shared just how wrong that war was and how they had no right to be in Iraq. Truth is reliable sources do come out all the time proving media and news outlets wrong, you just have to be critical to where it is coming from. I honestly don’t blame the public for believing non sense because it is not really their fault. It is sad that they do though.

    I don’t trust the government and I have given up on most media because most of it is very twisted and can be twisted from little truth. So obviously my stance or opinions on the COVIF thing are going to be biased, but I admit that. Like I said no matter what this is, we need to remain safe, but to know there is nothing wrong with questioning things. As long as you don’t go posting it as your truth without the right sources or information to back it up. Like most things I always say I am okay with not knowing and being on the fence or questioning things.

  10. Excellent info 🙂 I’ve been sticking to reading news only for the area we live in, as the U.S. is a cluster~fuck of shitty news. They are all over the board. I am not proud to be an American hahaha!

  11. Shitshow in the U.S. is accurate. The level of bias that is accepted is disgusting on both sides. But the amount of pure lies that are shared and then passed off as “just” this or “just” that are confusing us all. The position of the person speaking matters in all contexts. If you’re a comedian joking about Covid, well speaks for itself. But a politician is not in the position to joke or be sarcastic about a vicious disease when people look to them for hope, help, facts, direction, updates, etc.

    There’s so much out there to confuse us. I’ve seen instances where the author is a straight up con-person but the reader (person referring the book) wants to believe in the content so bad that they don’t care that the person telling them about it have a reputation for just wanting people’s money. I hope more of us become aware that sometimes lies are in the fine details, that scams are the difference between one number instead of another. People get stuck on the big picture they want then stop fact checking. Our b.s. sensors should stay on as we read the whole story, article, video, etc.

    Great post thanks for sharing and reminding us that we have a lot of ways to protect ourselves, and we shouldn’t forget to do so mentally and intellectually as well as physically. In the beginning of this I stayed very up to date on the news, especially as most people were writing this off as not being a big deal (a fact people still won’t acknowledge they were wrong about). But the worse this has gotten, and the more “stuff” put out there, the more I’ve had to back off. There’s all kinds of “symptom” articles out there and most of the time I think they just want to talk about it. But hey, I guess we all like to talk (looks up at long comment). 😉 Now I check in for half-hour up to an hour (maybe) or just read an article here and there that presents new information.

    1. That’s a really important point about people wanting to believe the message (or the person delivering it) because it yields a desirable outcome or it fits with their worldview, and not giving any thought to actually critically evaluating the message.

  12. Great post and useful diagram! Critical analysis is one of those skills that needs to become ingrained in our everyday; some people don’t take the time to question the information they receive, then share that same information and continue a damaging chain of misinformation.

  13. So many gullible people out there. Quick to believe on something that doesn’t have any solid proof. Plus, people often make a judgment without even finding the time to read a bit of the news. Headlines also don’t give you the real result, not unless you take the time to read and check on other sources as well. The problem is the fact that, fake news are everywhere. And those who never take the time to do a research are the worst!

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us. 💕

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