Medical misinformation is, most broadly, any health claim that lacks evidence.1 Alternatively framed, it is any health claim that goes against current evidence.2 These claims—based on anecdotes, untested theories, limited research, and/or false information3—can be a means for political, social, or economic gains.
Medical misinformation has been divided into two categories: (1) health ideas that have been practiced alongside biomedicine for decades and (2) new, unproven health ideas that are spread in an attempt to replace evidence-based medicine.4 The latter category is the type of medical misinformation included in the Media Manipulation Casebook. At its worst, it is harmful—or fatal—to the people who believe it.
Current medical misinformation is most visibly and widely shared through major social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter. But, it wasn’t the platforms that introduced medical misinformation. Medical misinformation predates the internet, and it has been a part of the internet since its beginning. In 1997, findings from “Medical information on the internet,” published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, concluded that “medical information available on Internet discussion groups may come from nonprofessionals and may be unconventional, based on limited evidence, and/or inappropriate.”5 In a 1999 issue of Journal of Public Health Medicine, Dr. Vince Abbott warned, “The WWW should not be considered as a reliable source of information on subjects about which one knows little. This is especially true for medical information, as...much of what a typical user may find will be inaccurate or biased.”6
Medical misinformation drives the disinformation campaigns discussed in “Trading Up the Chain: The Hydroxychloroquine Rumor” and in “Cloaked Science: The Yan Reports.”
- 1. Paul Armstrong and C. David Naylor, “Counteracting Health Misinformation: A Role for Medical Journals?” JAMA, April 22, 2019, 321(19):1863–1864, doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5168.
- 2. Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, Anna Gaysynsky, and Joseph N. Cappella, “Where We Go From Here: Health Misinformation on Social Media,” American Journal of Public Health, October 01, 2020, 110:S273-S275, https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305905.
- 3. Victor Suarez-Lledo and Javier Alvarez-Galvez, “Prevalence of Health Misinformation on Social Media: Systematic Review,” Journal of Medical Internet Research, January 2021, 23(1):e17187, https://www.jmir.org/2021/1/e17187/.
- 4. Armstrong and Naylor, “Counteracting Health Misinformation: A Role for Medical Journals?”
- 5. Jean Deason Culver, Fredric Gerr, and Howard Frumkin, “Medical information on the internet,” Journal of General Internal Medicine, August 1, 1997, 12: 466–470, https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1525-1497.1997.00084.x.
- 6. Vince Abbot, “Web Page Quality: Can We Measure It and What Do We Find? A Report of Exploratory Findings,” Journal of Public Health Medicine, June 2000, 22(2): 191–97, https://academic.oup.com/jpubhealth/article/22/2/191/1514240.