The dangers of fake news

We are currently facing various health challenges worldwide, including outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and diphtheria, rising cases of drug-resistant pathogens, ever increasing rates of obesity and physical inactivity as well as the impact of pollution and climate change on our health. The most recent and prominent case of concern is the coronavirus that has swept up a media storm, but how much of what we read is true?  

The impact of misinformation is significant throughout the globe, with 40% of the British public believing a minimum of one conspiracy theory, and this statistic may be higher in other countries such as the US.  Even more alarmingly, the enhanced support towards the anti-vaccine movement correlates with a soar in measle outbreaks in Europe, the Americas and Japan. It was also reported that 14% of parents in the UK would send their children to school with symptoms of contagious chickenpox, despite this breaking school policy and official quarantine advice. In extreme cases in West Africa, the effect of harmful advice can even drive unsafe burial practises where Ebola outbreaks are present.  

Current research carried out by the University of East Anglia, with the support of Public Health England, has found that the prevention of circulating fake news could potentially save lives. This is due to those believing in fake stories being less likely to undergo tasks that would prevent them, and others from contracting a disease e.g. washing their hands. Two studies were carried out: one strategy, focusing on information about the flu, monkeypox and norovirus, discovered that by reducing the circulation of false knowledge from just 50% to 40% diminished the outcomes of a disease outbreak. The second study added to this by concentrating on the impact of “immunising” people against fake news, which the modelling system suggests would reduce outbreak effects.  

Although the study was based on stimulation models and not real behaviour, the same principles can be applied to current society. In the modern world of social media, the impact of scare stories and false rumours have become amplified and are far more accessible. This places pressure on social media platforms to combat the issue, for example YouTube have prevented channels that promote anti-vaccine content, Facebook are removing conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, one including that drinking bleach will cure the virus, whilst Twitter are directing users to official Government information.  

It is evident that social media can give the public partial information that magnifies concerns and can even help the spread of the disease. Current research emphasises the impact of fake news coverage and that readers should be careful when reading sources to decipher fact from fiction. This includes analysing where the information is coming from, what is referenced and if the information is too good to be true.  

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Emily Hawkes

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June 2022
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