Health information vs. misinformation: how to tell the difference

By Meredith Bailey

They cause infertility. They contain microchips. They weren’t properly tested — these are just some of the dubious claims about COVID-19 vaccines that spread across social media and the internet in 2021. While health misinformation — information that is misleading, incorrect or false — has flourished during the pandemic, it didn’t begin with the coronavirus or with the vaccines designed to fight it.

From unproven cures for cancer to misconceptions about the effects of fluoridated water to “miracle” weight-loss supplements, health misinformation has a long history in the United States, and its prevalence has real-world consequences. Misinformation not only creates disagreement and distrust; it can lead people to make decisions that are bad for their own health and well-being as well as that of the public.

Believing something that turns out to be health misinformation can happen to any of us — how can you tell the difference between content that is credible and content that isn’t?

Think like a librarian

Before we spend too much time on the how, it’s important to understand the what: Health misinformation comes in two forms. The main difference between the two lies in the intent.

“Some information is just plain false — basically propaganda — that is spread on purpose to mislead people in support of some agenda,” says Andrea Ball, MLS, MSIM, the research and education librarian at the MultiCare Institute for Research & Innovation. “The second type involves unintentional misinterpretation, and this happens a lot, particularly when a person writing or reporting a health news story doesn’t understand statistics, inflates the impact of something or takes information out of context.”

Health information comes to us through many different sources and platforms, and it’s not always easy to root out information that’s completely untrue or content that has some element of truth but draws faulty conclusions.

The following tips can help you think like a librarian — in other words apply a critical lens to what you read and hear so that you can steer clear of misinformation and make accurate, informed decisions about your health.

Gauge your response

If a piece of health-related content is stirring up feelings of fear or outrage or other strong emotions, then take a step back and consider the author’s intent. Is the goal simply to inform or is it to provoke a reaction?

“People tend to form much faster and stronger opinions based on emotion than fact, and those who are intentionally spreading misinformation, such as anti-vaccine groups, know that,” says Gretchen Lasalle, MD, a family medicine physician at MultiCare Rockwood Clinic and author of the book “Let’s Talk Vaccines.” “They will often use emotionally charged language, headlines and images in order to trigger an emotional response.”

The ultimate goal may be to use your emotional response in order to:

  • Get you to buy a product
  • Drive website traffic or boost interaction through likes, clicks and shares
  • Escalate the spread of false ideas such as COVID-19 vaccines being unsafe

Watch out for over-the-top language and sensational headlines

Phrasing such as “breakthrough” or “revolutionary” or “cures cancer” can be red flags that a piece of content is not grounded in fact. Breakthroughs don’t happen very often. Scientific progress tends to be more gradual. Should a breakthrough in treating a disease actually happen, it would be reported widely across major news outlets, such as The New York Times, NBC News or NPR. If you’re reading about a “breakthrough” in a health newsletter or on an obscure website and nowhere else, then it’s likely a bogus claim.

Be wary of conspiracy theories

“Some intentionally misleading content plays on people’s mistrust of the government and the pharmaceutical industry,” says Dr. Lasalle. “These stories will often take a kernel of truth and then embellish it or twist it to serve their own agenda.”

For example, take the persistent rumor that Bill Gates was putting microchips (tiny electrical circuits that can send and receive information) in COVID-19 vaccines to track people in their daily lives, a topic that Dr. Lasalle covers in her blog.

Here’s one seed of truth that was likely used to spread the microchip falsehood: The Gates Foundation supports research to build technology that would help developing nations better track and document vaccine distribution, since many of these countries lack adequate public health tools and resources. However, the technology does not involve microchips, nor is it currently in use for any vaccines.

The lesson? Content that relies on conspiratorial thinking to make its point is likely not legitimate.

Check credentials, reputation

Just because someone is referred to as a doctor doesn’t mean they have the required expertise to speak about a particular health-related topic. For example, a doctor of chiropractic medicine may be a go-to for an article about spine or neck pain but isn’t an ideal source of information about infectious disease or cancer.

“It’s always a good idea to check out a person who is making health claims, particularly if those claims seem outlandish or off in some way,” says Dr. Lasalle. “Check their degree — Is it a PhD or an MD or neither? Is their degree related to the subject area they are speaking about? Also, see what the commentary is — does this person fall into legitimate medical circles or are they a fringe thinker? Asking these types of questions can help you determine someone’s credibility.”

Know what to look for in research studies and articles publicizing studies

Health-related content may frequently reference research studies. How do you know whether those articles and the studies themselves are to be believed?

“If it’s a news story about a study, it should say when and where the study was published,” says Ball. “It’s especially important to pay attention to the date — sometimes misleading stories will reference old studies and rehash them as though it’s a new sensational story.”

Also, be skeptical of news stories that reference preprint articles, a trend that grew during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to quickly provide scientific information to the public. Preprints are drafts of academic articles that have not undergone peer review, a rigorous process where a group of experts vet an article for validity and quality prior to publication.

Studies that have or are currently undergoing peer review, will be listed in pubmed.gov, the world’s largest biomedical literature database. Visit clinicaltrials.gov to seek out information about both privately and publicly funded clinical studies.

Turn to trusted sources and sites for health information

Do you know where to turn when searching for credible health-related information?

In general, disease-specific organizations, such as the American Heart Association, or university-affiliated sites are good places to start. Government entities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institutes of Health contain a wealth of information as well.

Another ideal source is medlineplus.gov. On this site, search for a particular disease, condition or drug and you’ll receive a list of links to sites that have been checked for accuracy. Be cautious when watching health-related podcasts or videos that are not sponsored by leading medical institutions or associated with leading medical experts.

If you’re uncertain about the credibility of a site or source, talk to your provider. You can also ask a local librarian.

“This is what we do every day — dig through information. We know what sources are out there and what’s legitimate,” says Ball. “We can’t give you health advice, but we are happy to point you toward the right information.”

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