Author: Jonny Lupsha, News Writer
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Doctors are facing COVID-19 conspiracies and protesters. NBC News broke the story about health care workers facing misinformation and harassment online while Cleveland.com reported on in-person protests of an Ohio doctor. The public often spreads health misinformation without reading past the headline.
All around the United States, conspiracy theorists are appearing online and as part of protests against coronavirus stay-at-home orders. According to NBC News, doctors have told reporters that they have had to “treat patients who had sought care too late because of conspiracy theories spread on social media.” They also specifically cited “Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter, which have struggled to contain the spread of misinformation, some of it coming from positions of authority.”
Additionally, as Cleveland.com reported, Ohio citizens have staged protests outside the home of Ohio Health Department Director Dr. Amy Acton, who signed Ohio’s stay-at-home order. According to Cleveland.com, the protesters at the Ohio Statehouse have been “small but spirited [groups] peppered with signs professing support for President Donald Trump; the anti-vaccination movement; and a conspiratorial, prejudiced distrust of Jewish people. Acton is Jewish.”
Why does the public spread health misinformation? How does it catch on?
Fool Me Online
Misinformation is nothing new. It’s been around for centuries. So why haven’t we learned by now who to trust?
“A 2014 survey found that six out of 10 Americans admitted that over the last week, they only skimmed headlines—most people never bothered to read the stories themselves,” said Dr. Roy Benaroch, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. “This has also been studied from the other direction, looking at links of news articles posted on social media, like Facebook and Twitter. Researchers have found that 60 percent of these posted links, including many that received comments and re-postings, had never, not once, been clicked on and opened.”
Dr. Benaroch said that this means we’re sharing headlines and making comments on them without ever reading the content of the articles. He added that many of us don’t even make an attempt to digest or understand the news, which is not a good sign for our critical thinking skills or ability to tell fact from fiction.
There’s also the concern of suffering from an “echo chamber effect.” Dr. Benaroch said we’re likely to interact with information on social media with which we agree. On Facebook, this means giving likes, or commenting, or sharing. On Twitter, it means heart react buttons and retweets. We’re less likely to make connections with people who have differing opinions. Therefore, rather than find the truth, we may simply be reinforcing our friends’ beliefs by sharing things they already think, and vice-versa.
“That may be especially true for health information,” Dr. Benaroch said.
Antidote for Misinformation
The best way to stop misleading information is with factual information.
“Links on Facebook or other social media sites can be a starting point for your health news, but if you really want accurate information, follow up on those links by looking at well-established articles from major newspapers and articles on truly authoritative health sites,” Dr. Benaroch said. “U.S. government-maintained health sources, like one from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], are reliable and often provide extensive links to the best references. All of these web addresses will end in .gov, like cdc.gov or nih.gov.”
He also recommended professional health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the World Health Organization, or nonprofits like the American Cancer Society and the American Diabetes Association.
Furthermore, he urged skepticism of any headline that uses sensationalist language. Cures advertised as “miracles,” “wonders,” or “magic” should be avoided. So should exaggerated words like “destroy” or “ruin.”
According to NBC News, during the coronavirus pandemic, doctors and nurses are working long shifts treating COVID-19 patients, only to go home, get online, and find social media users calling them frauds and saying the coronavirus is a hoax. Reading articles more thoroughly than skimming the headlines and avoiding exaggerated or sensationalized media are two important steps towards stopping the misinformation spread—and maybe the disease spread itself.
Dr. Roy Benaroch contributed to this article. Dr. Benaroch is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. He earned his B.S. in Engineering at Tulane University, followed by his M.D. at Emory University.