Once upon a time, people with health concerns would have consulted their home health manual and then made a doctor’s appointment to follow up on any concerns. But in these times of internet-in-our-pockets and hard-to-access primary care, our first instinct is usually to head online for information.
The problem is that finding reliable health information online is tricky – websites and social media are rife with misinformation. In five minutes online, you can see everything from websites claiming that lemons cure cancer (they don’t) to social media posts from distant relatives claiming your cell phone could give you a brain hemorrhage (it won’t). And all that is before you’ve even fired up the search engine to type “what is causing my headache?” (Spoiler: it’s probably NOT brain cancer.)
What does health misinformation look like?
Health misinformation is information that is false, inaccurate or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, health misinformation is bad for your health.
Misinformation can take many different forms, including:
- Websites (especially with sensational, clickbait-style headlines)
- Quotations and videos that have been edited to change their meaning
- Misleading graphs or diagrams, using statistics that are presented out of context
- Old images that are being recirculated
With a nice logo, a good stock photo and a few links, any webpage can look as reliable as a well-sourced page like Health Canada, WebMD or the Mayo Clinic. That’s why it’s important to get a second opinion about any health information you read online, and to remember – if you’re not sure, don’t share!
Here are a few strategies to help you ensure that what you’re reading is health information, not misinformation.
1. Consider the source
Just asking yourself if the information seems credible can often be the pause you need to save yourself from falling victim to and spreading misinformation. Before you decide to believe something you’ve read online, ask yourself: is this information coming from a credible, reputable source?
Check the “About” page on the website and look for likely biases or conflicts of interest. Check to see if the website links to reputable institutions and agencies, and whether the article lists citations for the studies it mentions. Check the date on the article (and the supporting research) – it should be current, as health information evolves rapidly.
If the information came via text, email or social media from someone you know, consider the likelihood they are sharing misinformation before you reshare it.
2. Get a second opinion
It’s always worth verifying a claim. Enter the information you’ve found into a search engine and then see what comes up. When you click on the links and read the articles, do they support the first claim, or not? Ideally, you want the information to be verified by at least one other reliable source. If you see a shocking photo online, use Google Image Search to look for its original publication source – does it match?
3. Watch out for absolutes
Health information is rarely black-and-white – and the article you’re reading should reflect that. Beware websites that use words like “always” or “never” – signs that the perspective is biased and you’re not getting the full story.
4. The “too good to be true” test
As the old saying goes, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Always fact-check claims about miracle cures and easy fixes. Be wary – these websites are usually trying to sell you something.
5. Use helpful resources
There are lots of helpful resources available when it comes to fact-checking the health information you find online.
- Use the Google Fact Check Explorer to search the information you’re interested in.
- Snopes.com, one of the oldest internet fact-checking websites, has been debunking spurious online claims since 1994.
- Find advanced fact-checking techniques online at the Poynter Institute.
It’s also worth reviewing information about how to spot disinformation and how to engage with people you know who may be spreading it online.
- Dip into the resources at Media Smarts – remember the house hippo?
- Review the video online at SPOTfakenews.ca.
- Read “Spotting Fake Health News and Misinformation”
- Check out the Community Toolkit for Addressing Health Misinformation
- Find downloadable resources at ScienceUPFirst!
Need help now? Who to call
When it comes to immediate health concerns, step away from the computer. The health information you find online, even when it’s from reliable, evidence-based sources, cannot replace an actual discussion with your health-care provider. Make an appointment with your family physician if possible or visit a community-based walk-in or pharmacy-based clinic. You can also pick up the phone:
- If you are having a mental health crisis, call 211.
- If you need advice from a nurse, call 811.
- If it is a medical emergency, call 911.