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One in three cancer articles on social media has wrong info


One in three of the most popular news and feature articles on social media about the treatment of the four leading cancers in the United States contains misinformation, and the majority of those have the potential to harm patients, according to a new analysis.

Of the 200 most popular articles (50 each for prostate, lung, breast, and colorectal cancer), about a third (32.5%, n = 65) contained misinformation.

Among these articles containing misinformation, 76.9% (50/65) contained harmful information.

“The Internet is a leading source of health misinformation,” the study authors wrote. This is “particularly true for social media, where false information spreads faster and more broadly than fact-checked information,” they said, citing other research.

“We need to address these issues head on,” said lead author Skyler Johnson, MD, of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.

“As a medical community, we can’t ignore the problem of cancer misinformation on social media or ask our patients to ignore it. We must empathize with our patients and help them when they encounter this type of information,” he said in a statement. “My goal is to help answer their questions, and provide cancer patients with accurate information that will give them the best chance for the best outcome.”

The study was published online July 22 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The study period ran from 2018 to 2019, and looked at articles posted on social media platforms Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, or Pinterest. Popularity was measured by engagement with readers, such as upvotes, comments, reactions, and shares.

Some of the articles came from long-established news entities such as CBS News, The New York Times, and medical journals, while others came from fleeting crowdfunding web pages and fledging nontraditional news sites.

One example of popular and harmful misinformation highlighted by Dr. Johnson in an interview was titled, “44-Year-Old Mother Claims CBD Oil Cured Her of Breast Cancer within 5 Months.” Posted on in February 2018, the article is tagged as “opinion” by the publisher and in turn links to another news story about the same woman in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper.

The ideas and claims in such articles can be very influential, Jennifer L. Lycette, MD, suggested in a recent blog post.

“After 18 years as a cancer doctor, it sadly doesn’t come as a surprise anymore when a patient declines treatment recommendations and instead opts for ‘alternative’ treatment,” she wrote.

Sometimes, misinformation is not sensational but is still effective via clever wording and presentation, observed Brian G. Southwell, PhD, of Duke University, Durham, N.C., who has studied patients and misinformation.

“It isn’t the falsehood that is somehow magically attractive, per se, but the way that misinformation is often framed that can make it attractive,” he said in an interview.

Dr. Southwell recommends that clinicians be proactive about medical misinformation.

“Rather than expect patients to raise concerns without prompting, health care providers should invite conversations about potential misinformation with their patients,” he wrote in a recent essay in the American Journal of Public Health.

In short, ask patients what they know about the treatment of their cancer, he suggests.

“Patients don’t typically know that the misinformation they are encountering is misinformation,” said Dr. Southwell. “Approaching patients with compassion and empathy is a good first step.”


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