Bad news alert: there’s a shocking amount of health information floating around online that’s dubious or downright dangerous. From fad diets to cures for cancer, baldness and beyond, articles with biased or unbalanced advice are nothing new. But this might be: according to reports from independent scientific coalitions, media analysts and medical associations, the ever increasing volume of misinformation online poses real threats to public health. As if that’s not concerning enough for health care marketers, the trend also threatens the general sense of trust people place in brands across the health spectrum.

What to do? Read on for some research context, resources to battle bad information, and ideas to inspire trust that your organization has everyone’s best interests in mind.

Assessing Truthiness: the Top Health Stories in 2018

The problem is not just “fake news,” the term for intentionally manufacturing stories for profit or political gain—or the practice of using that label as a publicity tactic to challenge credibility and confuse people. The prevalence of unsubstantiated, poorly sourced information has also been raising red flags, because this content gets seen and shared so incredibly often.

Consider this report on 2018’s most popular health stories. In the study, a network of scientists at Health Feedback and the Credibility Coalition examined 100 articles with the highest level of social media engagement. Of the top 10, they found that while three articles were “highly credible,” the majority included false or misleading information. For instance, the 8th most popular story, “World Health Organization Officially Declares Bacon as Harmful as Cigarettes,” was shared 587,000 times and deemed “not credible and potentially harmful” by the study authors.

It’s more than just sponsored content about the latest weight loss fads. The top topics in the 100 articles shared were themes of particular importance to health care marketers:

  • disease / treatment
  • food / nutrition
  • vaccination

In looking at the integrated reach of the Top 100 health articles, The Health Feedback study found that almost half the total shares of all content included “neutral and poorly-rated articles.” The conclusion: there’s a lot of work to do to curb the spread of inaccurate health news.

What’s the big deal?

Scientific understanding. Public health. Provider trust.

In an era when information technology keeps evolving at super speeds, consumer knowledge of health and media literacy hasn’t quite kept pace.

Public health officials worry that anti-vaccination views, or rather the preponderance of news about vaccination fears without a balanced or evidence-based perspective, is leading to more outbreaks of disease and illnesses, notably measles.

It’s easier for information to spread like a disease, too. That’s because lies spread faster than the truth, according to this Science study of social media behavior in 2018. “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” and not just political news, the study’s abstract states.

Blame it on the robots? Not so fast.

“We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information,” say the Science study authors from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Media Lab. “Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”  

Social power

As marketers know, more attention-getting themes and headlines get more clicks and views. And when a colleague, friend or family member shares the story in your social feed, you know you’re more likely to give it a second look.

Social media has long been amplifying and influencing health perceptions on everything from vaccination and eating disorders to cancer cures, heart disease and drug addiction.

It’s why The AMA Journal of Ethics called for the health industry to step up and address the issue, person to person. The investigators said that “healthcare professionals can act as a valuable source for clearing up rumors both in and outside of their practices.”

Marketers clearly play a crucial role. As the people tasked with helping clinicians communicate, our first responsibility is to share the right information so that people can act as educated, empowered participants in their health—no matter where or how they receive care.

What to do

So in a world where misinformation has become a health threat, how do we help the cause, personally and professionally? People and organizations around the world have stepped up the battle against dubious digital information, and we can too.

It starts with smarter consumption and sharing—something that international team Drog creatively offers up in GetBadNews.com, a game to inspire critical thinking about media. And it continues with content creation, including the words you choose to use.

Content marketers, just like journalists, need to consider how to frame discussions in clear, meaningful ways that benefit audiences and build trust. (It turns out that exposure to the term “fake news” in itself may erode trust in media, The Poynter Institute reported.)

Google search trends show people still search out “fake news,” but “fake health news” isn’t quite on people’s search term radar. Now is the time to put more real news on their radar.

Challenge and opportunity

Consider it a brand journalism opportunity. For every popular health story that butchers objectivity, misleads readers or simply doesn’t present the scope of information that readers deserve, there’s a topic your health organization can improve on.

As health care marketers, writers and strategists, we’re often under pressure to make information that people are already inundated with, well, interesting and worth sharing. But we’re also responsible for rock-solid sourcing and even, perhaps, helping to educate readers about how to check those sources and verify claims.

Here are some tips and resources for doing just that.

Content writing tips

When covering scientific topics, the researchers at Health Feedback ask content creators to:

  • Go beyond simply describing results and research accurately, but to present findings in a balanced way with enough context to help readers understand the full picture.
  • Include comments from independent experts whenever possible.
  • Get information from reputable sources, as opposed to sources that offer little to no journalistic rigor.

Use outbound links to give readers credible references.

  • It boosts your SEO.
  • It shows a commitment to reporting accurately, which builds trust.

Fact check with these 5 sites

  • The health fraud updates from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates and outlaws new and dangerous products, call out false advertising claims.
  • HealthNewsReview.org follows up on news stories to examine the accuracy and quality of evidence they provide, challenging readers to think critically about health care assertions presented in everything from major news sites like ABC News, Reuters and the Guardian to the publicity efforts of health organizations like Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins.
  • FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, focuses on misleading political claims, including those made in the realm of science and health.
  • Snopes.com is one the internet’s oldest sources for fact-checking and contextualized media analysis.
  • WebMD has an article on spotting health scams, with excellent information for consumers and links to quack-busting government websites.

Go deeper

Final thoughts

Sharing quality, trustworthy, properly sourced content is vital to your ongoing brand health—just as it is to public health. The explosion of online misinformation is one more reminder to take a closer look at how we’re interpreting, verifying and presenting information. Because the bad stuff hurts us all.

For help creating the good stuff, get in touch with us at any time.