Dr Who? When to trust online health information

If a random person in the street yelled to you that drinking warm water cured coronavirus would you believe them? Would you trust them with the health of your family and friends? Probably not. Yet, when people see the same information online they seem to trust it. 

We’ve all seen (maybe even shared) the posts floating about: miracle cures, tips from ‘a nurse’/’a doctor’, or stories from ‘a recovered patient’. These posts feature a variety of weird and wonderful solutions to COVID 19, and people share them because they care.

It’s natural to want to keep your loved ones safe, but these posts can actually do more harm than good. If someone thinks eating eggs, drinking lemon juice, or putting some sliced onions in the corner of every room (all things I’ve seen touted as solutions) is going to cure coronavirus they’re definitely not taking this virus seriously. Giving people a false hope of curing it by drinking warm water, or eating acidic food is only going to lead to reckless behaviour. Even worse, people start to mistrust official medical advice. 

I work in the Island’s Health and Social Care library and training about ‘web evaluation’ is part of my job. These posts have been steadily increasing my blood pressure as I stress about the impact of fake health information. After a particularly ridiculous post was shared widely yesterday, I realised I could do something more productive than ranting about it to anyone who would listen, and actually try to help.

As part of my role I teach sessions to help people critically consider the information they see online and I want to share some of these tips with you. Hopefully it will help slow the spread of the fake stories that circulate on social media. 

Today I’ll mostly be writing about information on Facebook and WhatsApp, but you can apply this to most web sources.

Step 1: Trust no one

Well, not no one, but read information with a healthy level of suspicion. 

The internet is a place where anyone can say pretty much anything. I could pop onto Facebook right now and say that a nurse told me that running backwards in a circle yelling the national anthem would make you immune to coronavirus and absolutely no one could stop me. All I have to do is make that post public and anyone can see it, share it, take screen shots of it, and spread it like unwelcome jam. 

This also applies to forwarded WhatsApp messages, chain emails, and basically anything that comes without a link back to some kind of reputable evidence base.

If there were a cure for this, health professionals would want us to know.

My colleagues in the medical field are making massive sacrifices every day because of this virus and you can bet your Aunt Mildred that they’d be shouting it from the rooftops if they’d found a solution. Well, probably shouting it from a reliable, peer reviewed health or science publication like Nature or The Lancet, but either way, you’d hear about it. 

Step 2: Location Location Location.

As I’ve mentioned above, there’s lots of great official places research can be published. WhatsApp isn’t one of them. There’s a big difference between a publication in a peer reviewed industry journal, and a screenshot of a copy pasted post from Facebook which is forwarded to you via email.

If you’ve been linked to a website always look for a clearly marked author or corporate author (e.g. the NHS), or official mark and logos such as the IOM Government crest. Domain names can also tell you a lot about the source, IOM Government resources will be hosted on a .gov.im domain. So remember that someone saying that a source is from the NHS or the Government is not the same as it being visibly hosted on their website.


1.png1.png

There’s lots of great patient information available on sites like patient.info and NHS.uk they are both evidence based, run by medical professionals, and full of brilliant, reliable information. Trust them more than a random post from someone who says the Government is lying to you (although, I suppose that’s definitely what the Government would say if they were lying to you).

Social media is a bit trickier, there are perfectly valid pages for the World Health Organisation (WHO), Public Health, journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine, and official news sites like the BBC or Manx news pages. However, there are also lots of pages which aren’t reputable. There’s a big element of using common sense here, but, if you remember step 1 and make sure you’re really suspicious, you can then…

Step 3: Google It.

If working as an information professional has taught me anything, it’s to appreciate Google. 

To check out information just pull a few key words out of a post you’re unsure of, and google them. A lot of the time these false information posts have actually already been thoroughly debunked, but those stories don’t get the same amount of traction.

“How do I pick out key words Stacey?” I hear you ask. Great question! Just look at the post, and see what the basic elements are. So if it’s about coronavirus and drinking lemon juice to combat the alkali nature of the virus (I know, I didn’t say these stories made sense, but stay with me) then my key words are “Coronavirus”, “Lemon juice”, “cure”, and maybe “alkali”. 


2.png2.png

As you can see, this one’s been floating about for a while, and there’s plenty about it. You can see it’s been covered by Reuters and NY Times among other outlets. 

If for some reason you can’t Google it, another useful trick can be clicking on the original post and reading some of the comments, sometimes people who know what they’re talking about will reply.


3.png3.png

Then who can I trust?

I know it can seem daunting to put your faith in someone when they can’t give you an immediate cure, but if they could they would. Medical professionals absolutely know what they’re doing, they’ve trained for this.

It’s very appealing to think there’s a quick solution or an easy fix that can keep your loved ones safe, but I’m afraid they’re just not real. You can trust medical professionals, public health, the World Health Organisation, and information from peer reviewed medical publications. Everyone’s working hard to keep you safe, and Howard, Ashy, Dr A, and crew are keeping everyone in the loop with daily briefings.

So, stay safe, stay suspicious of anecdotal health information shared online, and keep washing those hands.

Leave a Reply