How to Spot and Combat Health Misinformation

Sept. 9, 2022

With myths like “drinking bleach protects against COVID-19” and “vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 cause infertility,” the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a harsh light on the dangers of health misinformation (i.e., inaccurate information shared by people who do not realize it is inaccurate). One study found that nearly 8/10 adults have heard at least 1 of 8 different false statements about COVID-19 and believe it to be true, or are unsure if it is true or false. It’s not just COVID-19—recent global mpox (formerly called monkeypox)  outbreaks have been accompanied by their own list of myths

While recent events have magnified the problem, misinformation “is not necessarily a new phenomenon. It has been around for centuries,” said Kylie Hall, M.P.H., Operations Director for the Center for Immunization Research and Education at North Dakota State University, during a session at ASM Microbe in June 2022. Misinformation gains traction in periods of uncertainty, as people try to make sense of events when verified facts are lacking. Various factors, including social media, contribute to the dissemination of misinformation. Learning how to spot and correct it—and help others do the same—can slow the spread of misinformation now, and in the future.

A Mix of Factors Promote the Spread and Acceptance of Misinformation

Unlike disinformation (i.e., false information that is spread intentionally and maliciously, potentially for monetary or political gain), people do not spread misinformation with an intent to harm. “A lot of the time [people] think they’re actually sharing good info, but ultimately they aren’t…[And] sometimes it’s more harmful than others,” Hall said.

Part of what makes misinformation convincing is that it often contains a kernel of truth, wrapped in fictious or misleading information. The myth that drinking bleach prevents COVID-19, which circulated toward the beginning of the pandemic, is a good example—it is true that bleach can be used in surface disinfectants to kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, bleach will not kill the virus inside the body. Rather, bleach is poisonous, and drinking it can cause severe bodily harm. This misinformation has some merit (i.e., that bleach can kill SARS-CoV-2), which makes it more believable for people who may not understand the dangers of the practice.

People Accept Misinformation That is Familiar and Aligns with Their Beliefs

“Most myths actually don’t survive. It’s really just a few that get pushed and pushed and pushed that do survive,” said Lisa Singh, Ph.D., a professor of computer science and research professor at the Massive Data Institute at Georgetown University. As misinformation circulates, it becomes more familiar and starts to feel “more real and true.” Moreover, if myths align with people’s core beliefs or feelings, or are promoted by sources they trust (e.g., political figures), there is a greater chance they will be accepted.
smartphone with social media apps
Social media plays a key role in the dissemination of health misinformation.
Source: Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash.
Stylistically, misinformation is often flashy and persuasive, playing into emotions like shock, fear, anger or moral outrage. This emotional weightiness helps myths lodge into people’s brains—so much so that, even if corrected, an individual may still believe the myths that misled them in the first place.

Social Media Fuels the Spread of Misinformation

The sheer volume of content people are bombarded with every day, largely via social media, contributes to the dispersal of misinformation. Social media platforms “allow everybody the opportunity to say whatever they want with…very limited moderation,” Singh said. Bots and algorithms on these sites also amplify information, regardless of credibility. Sifting through this information pollution can be overwhelming—and time-consuming. People may hit the “share” button quickly without stopping to consider the accuracy of the information they are sharing.

How to Detect Misinformation

To combat misinformation, one must first learn how to spot it. When determining whether a piece of information is credible, Hall recommended the following:
  • Consider the source: Does the website have a “Contact Us” or “About Us” page? Does it have a trusted domain, like “.edu” or “.gov?” What are the author’s credentials—have they written anything else? What is their motivation for writing the piece? Consider who shared the information with you. Are they a reputable source (i.e., work in healthcare)? 
  • Read beyond the headlines: Oftentimes headlines are sensational, crafted to grab your attention. Dig into the content itself—does the information support the claims? Did the author cherry pick data, or use information out of context? If so, raise a red flag.
  • Examine supporting sources: “If you have a credible story with a credible author, they’re often going to back up their claims with facts,” Hall said. If they don’t, that’s another red flag. If they do, how many? Look through the sources they cite—are you able to draw the same conclusions from the information presented?
  • Review the date: Sometimes people will share content that is several years old and may no longer be relevant. Ensure the information is recent—if it isn’t, think about how that may influence its credibility.
  • Check your biases: Consider if, and how, your own beliefs may be affecting your judgement. Are you viewing the information objectively, or looking for how the information aligns or conflicts with your own perspective on an issue?  
  • Make sure it’s not a joke: There are satire websites that share sensational content for laughs. If something seems outlandish, determine whether the content is meant to inform or entertain.
  • Ask an expert: If you can’t tell if something is true, Hall suggested asking an expert in the field, such as a doctor, other healthcare professional or scientist, or finding someone who can point you in the right direction, like a librarian. Fact-checker websites can also be useful for disentangling fact from fiction.

How to Combat Misinformation

According to Singh, “one of the hard things about misinformation, particularly on social media, is how do you stop it?” Despite the challenges, there are ways to combat misinformation at both small (e.g., interactions with family and friends) and large scales.

Debunking Myths with Family and Friends

When educating those in your personal network about misinformation, avoid publicly shaming them on social media—alienation does not preclude receptivity. Instead, Hall emphasized the need for empathy and inclusive language (e.g., “I find it hard to tell what a critical source is sometimes too. Can I share what I’ve learned for how to recognize misinformation?”).

Actively listening is also critical—what is the root of their concern? Look for the kernel of truth, then help free it from the shroud of misleading or false information. This can be achieved via a “Fact-Warning-Fallacy-Fact” approach. In this method, a fact (kernel of truth) is followed by a warning about the misinformation, an explanation of why it is wrong or misleading (the fallacy), and another fact that provides alternative, correct information.

graphic of fact-warning-fallacy-fact approach

The following is an example for how the approach might be used debunk the myth that vaccines can make you sick with COVID-19:
  • Fact: COVID-19 vaccines do not cause COVID-19.
  • Warning: Heads-up! Misinformation alert!
  • Fallacy: Despite what you may hear, the claim that vaccines cause COVID-19 is not true. It is possible you will feel ill after getting a COVID-19 vaccine. However, this is to be expected and does not mean you are sick with COVID-19.
  • Fact: COVID-19 vaccines are like training wheels for your immune system—they teach it how to recognize and fight SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This can lead to tiredness, a headache or muscle pains, among other symptoms. However, this is not because the vaccine gave you COVID-19. Rather, these symptoms show that your body is building up its defenses to protect you from SARS-CoV-2.
Bolstering scientific data with stories and anecdotes is also useful for meeting people on an emotional level. For example, when Hall addresses the myth that COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility, she uses the fact that many of her friends have become pregnant after receiving the vaccine, among other anecdotes, to make the data more relatable. Sticking to plain language (avoiding jargon) is also key for making sure your message comes across clearly.

Addressing Misinformation on a Large Scale

While everyone can do their part to tackle misinformation on an individual basis, steps must also be taken at the community/societal level. To Hall and Singh, this means building trust in public health infrastructure and investing in long-term interventions and policies for the detection and prevention of misinformation on social media. Singh and her colleagues are developing computational tools that would allow researchers to monitor conversations surrounding misinformation on social media. “Once we can detect those different pieces of misinformation that are surging, we can focus on interventions that [target] those pieces of misinformation,” she said.” She believes using publicly available data from social media platforms, like Twitter, can provide insights into how people are thinking about public health issues, and how to respond to them.

Ensuring people can easily access accurate and relevant information is also key. This includes posting credible information in social channels where myths are spreading, while also partnering with trusted community figures and sources to disseminate messages. For instance, people may be more receptive to religious leaders or community organizations than they are to public health organizations or professionals.

Both Hall and Singh underscored that being proactive is essential for making headway in the battle against misinformation. Educating younger populations about how to spot misinformation can “immunize them” against myths in the future. Moreover, many people are unclear about how the scientific process works—they think it is linear, when it is much more fluid. Findings are constantly revised, added to or disproven, which means health recommendations tied to those findings also change. Arming people with knowledge about the ebb and flow of scientific discoveries may help them critically analyze new health information as it becomes available, rather than taking headlines at face value.

Research in this article was presented at ASM Microbe, the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, held June 9-13, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Get more tips and tricks for engaging with audiences with different perspectives. 

Author: Madeline Barron, Ph.D.

Madeline Barron, Ph.D.
Madeline Barron, Ph.D. is the Science Communications Specialist at ASM. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.