The rapid rise of medical misinformation online is causing real harm and making us even more polarized, argue Julia Belluz and John Lavis in a recent New York Times opinion piece. Bogus health claims aren’t limited to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — the “usual spaces” for sharing falsehoods. Medical misinformation also reaches huge audiences through streaming platforms such as Spotify — including Joe Rogan’s misleading COVID-19 claims on his popular podcast — and Netflix. It also appears in the form of dubious health products and books sold on e-commerce sites like Amazon. Fighting back against this prolific misinformation is no easy task. But the “best health bunk prevention of all,” the authors note, “may be education.”
Discuss: Why are we vulnerable to medical misinformation? How can you fact-check health claims online? Should streaming platforms like Spotify and Netflix fact-check “their nonfiction health content”? How should sites like Amazon deal with health books and products that push misinformation, including falsehoods that could endanger personal and public health?
Dig deeper: Use this think sheet to further explore the problem of medical misinformation.
Canadian trucker protests against government COVID-19 regulations have attracted significant financial and political support from non-Canadian sources, including some extremist groups. They have also become a flashpoint for false and misleading posts overstating their size and popularity (often through out-of-context photos and video) among other claims. Facebook officials told NBC News on Feb. 11 that some groups using the platform to encourage “convoy”-style protests in the United States were run by fake accounts with ties to foreign content mills.
Discuss: Why do promoters of political causes so often exaggerate the size of gatherings and degree of public support for their efforts? How can foreign-run content mills make money by creating large Facebook groups about the convoy? What can members of the public do to get an accurate understanding of these protests?
Idea: Discuss the importance of transparency in political organizing online. Then review with students the changes Facebook made to its page transparency policies in 2018. Finally, show them how to use the platform’s page transparency section to find out more about page administrators’ location(s) and the history of any page name changes. Why are these details important?
Some news organizations have found growing audiences on TikTok and are learning more about what does well on the video platform, which is especially popular among young people. ABC News — one of several legacy news outlets with more than 1 million followers on TikTok — quickly discovered, for instance, that “hard news worked better than some of their attempts to follow goofy trends.”
Idea: Watch ABC News’ top-viewed TikTok video, which features President Joe Biden discussing a possible vaccine mandate for federal employees. Then, read this ABC News report that also focuses on the potential mandate. How is the coverage similar? How is it different? Can people be as informed through shorter news presentations — including video or text optimized for social media — as they are through longer pieces of journalism? Can news organizations fulfill their traditional role in a democracy if they only produce TikTok-style reporting? Why or why not?
Another idea: As a class, explore some of the TikTok news accounts featured in the Axios piece. Which account is your favorite? Why? Do you follow any of these news organizations on TikTok? What kind of videos do they post? Does watching these videos make you feel informed? Do they make you want to continue learning about particular topics or news stories? If so, how would you learn more?
NO: Former President Donald Trump did not call former Vice President Mike Pence “weak” in a statement on Feb. 4. YES: This is a fabricated screenshot created to mimic the actual template Trump uses to release statements. YES: Trump did release a statement mentioning Pence on Feb. 4, but did not call him “weak.” YES: Comedian Gabe Sanchez confirmed to Reuters Fact Check that he created the fake statement as a parody.
NewsLit takeaway: Digital images are easy to doctor, and text elements are particularly simple to alter. It’s always a good idea to double-check the authenticity of images that contain text — especially screenshots that aren’t accompanied by a URL. This example also demonstrates Poe’s Law: A maxim of internet culture that says an unlabeled satirical comment or parody post can be easily mistaken for a sincere, legitimate comment.
NO: A technology used in agriculture called “RNA interference” cannot be used to control the population through infertility, as this TikTok video claims. YES: RNA interference is used in agriculture to fight pests and make crops more nutritious and more resilient to the impact of climate change. YES: The top video in this post is narrated by Mike Adams, a notorious purveyor of medical disinformation who runs the conspiracy theory website Natural News. NO: Crops that use RNA interference technology cannot be engineered to harm people, and do not cause infertility or other reproductive issues. NO: RNA interference cannot somehow target a specific race.
NewsLit takeaway: Social media posts that make shocking or extraordinary claims should be approached with a high degree of skepticism. This is especially true of claims that invoke expansive, far-fetched conspiracy theories. This example features a TikTok user (at bottom) and a clip (at top) from a baseless conspiracy theory “lecture” by Adams. The original video from 2017 attempted to falsely connect the development of this gene-silencing technology to horrifying examples of historic medical abuse of Black people in the United States, which included egregiously unethical reproductive experiments. It taps into longstanding distrust in the Black community of the medical community and of government.
NO: The coolers in this video are not empty because of a supply chain issue. YES: Employees temporarily emptied the coolers due to a refrigerant leak and restocked them after the problem was repaired. YES: The Walmart in Dickson City, Pennsylvania, confirmed to PolitiFact that it never ran out of food and no other inventory was affected by this incident. YES: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused ongoing and widespread supply chain issues. YES: Grocery stores, including in Dickson City, have felt the continued effects of these problems over the past few months.
NewsLit takeaway: Visual misinformation like out-of-context video and photos are easily mistaken for sound evidence for false claims, especially when they involve issues that hit close to home. In this case, there is a seed of truth: The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on global supply chains — a problem exacerbated by transport issues; disruptions to production and labor; and business strategies aimed at “reducing the amount of on-hand and in-transit inventory.” Rumors seeking to exploit public frustrations and anxiety about these disruptions for political gain have been common throughout the pandemic.
You can find this week's rumor examples to use with students in these slides.
Falsehoods are often “sticky” and hard for us to replace with accurate information. Charlie Warzel explains why in his Feb. 14 newsletter.
Memes self-replicate like viruses, says Harvard’s Emily Dreyfuss, accelerating culture wars “that spill into the offline world” in the form of protests and even policies — sometimes without regard for accuracy.
NBC is defending its coverage of superstar skier Mikaela Shiffrin after facing criticism for how it covered her “shocking Olympics flameout,” including airing footage of her sitting with her head bowed after being disqualified from a second event.
Journalist Heber López was killed in Oaxaca, Mexico, on Feb. 10. He’s the fifth media worker killed this year in Mexico.
Bellingcat’s Aric Toler hunted down the location used in a stock photo. His walk-through Twitter thread is a digital verification master class.
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