To uncover the validity and scientific accuracy of health stories published in 2018, researchers at Health Feedback, a network of scientists dedicated to reviewing media coverage of health and medical news, worked in collaboration with the Credibility Coalition to analyse the most popular health articles.
The stories with the highest numbers of engagement, published by a variety of sources from well-known publications such as Huffington Post, CNN, and The Guardian to lifestyle blogs, showed a clear issue with misinformation and inaccuracy.
Of the 10 most-shared articles pertaining to health, seven contained misleading or false information – with the most popular article, “Federal Study Finds Marijuana 100 Times Less Toxic than Alcohol, Safer than Tobacco”, published by UrHealthGuide, and shared more than 1m times receiving a rating of “not credible and potentially harmful”.
According to researchers, the issues with the majority of the articles ranged from lack of detail or context, to “overstatement of the significance of research findings”.
Incorrect interpretations of scientific findings also proved to be an issue in some of the most popular articles, as were “sensational headlines” used to attract social media attention.
The only three stories to receive a “highly credible” rating were all published by Time magazine.
Scientists found the issue extended to the top 100 shared articles about health as well – with less-than-half of the top 100 health articles rated as “highly credible.”
While highly-rated articles were shared more frequently, with 11m shares, poorly-rated articles also received a substantial number of shares with 8.5m.
And Facebook proved to be the largest source of inaccurate articles, with the social media site accounting for 96 per cent of the shares of the top 100 articles.
To analyse the stories, categorised into three main topics of interest – disease and disease treatment, food and nutrition, and vaccines – editors evaluated article credibility based on a number of factors such as “quality and diversity of primary sources, as well as presence of rhetoric and emotional language”.
Articles that were deemed credible typically left readers better informed.
Of the topics, the articles regarding disease and disease treatment received the highest percentage of positive ratings – with the majority published by reputable sources.
Alternatively, widely-shared articles related to food and nutrition received the highest percentage of negative credibility scores, according to researchers, with many coming from lifestyle blogs or “health-related websites of dubious origin”.
According to the researchers, the findings indicate that “more work needs to be done to curb the spread of inaccurate health news”.
Facebook has previously acknowledged its widespread issue with fake news and has implemented various methods of combating it, including the use of third-party fact-checkers.
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