Despite not being a novel phenomenon, the dissemination of health misinformation accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic. A new KFF survey reveals that many Americans continue to encounter misinformation frequently and are unsure whether to believe it. The survey was conducted between May 23 and June 12 with just over 2,000 adults participating. Ten false health claims regarding Covid-19, reproductive health, and gun violence were posed to participants.
At least four in ten individuals reported hearing each statement, the report found. When given the statement, “More people have died from the Covid-19 vaccines than from the Covid-19 virus,” 47% of respondents deemed it to be demonstrably false. However, approximately 20% of respondents said that it was undoubtedly or probably true.
Concerning reproductive health, only 30% of respondents believed the statement “Sex education that includes information about contraception and birth control increases the likelihood that adolescents will engage in sexual activity” to be categorically false. Regarding gun violence, only 22% of respondents said that “People who have firearms at home are less likely to be killed by a gun than those who do not have firearms” is unquestionably false.
The authors of the study discovered that relatively few individuals deemed any of the fraudulent claims to be “absolutely true.” Nonetheless, approximately half to three-quarters of the participants were unsure of the veracity of each claim, classifying them as “probably true” or “probably false.”
In addition, respondents were asked where they heard or read health-related misinformation and whom they trusted the most when it was disseminated. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they would place some trust in health information reported by local television news stations, followed by national network news such as ABC, CBS, or NBC at 72%, local newspapers at 71%, and online news aggregators such as Apple, Yahoo, or Google News at 64%.
People who obtained their health information from Newsmax, OANN, Fox News, or social media were more likely to have heard at least one of the five false Covid-19 claims in the survey. A quarter of the participants (24%) reported using social media weekly or more often to “find health information or advice.” This group consisted primarily of Hispanics, African Americans, and individuals from low-income households.
Six percent of weekly users of the social news aggregation and discussion site Reddit say they would have a great deal of faith in the health information they find there. Weekly consumers of TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter also have a high level of confidence in the health information they find on these platforms.
“Adults who frequently use social media to find health information and advice are more likely to believe that certain false statements about COVID-19 and reproductive health are definitely or probably true,” the authors of the study wrote. Ninety-three percent of respondents said they trust their physicians for “at least a fair amount” of health information and recommendations, the highest percentage of any information source surveyed.
In a 22-page advisory, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy referred to health misinformation as “a serious threat to public health” and urged individuals to take responsibility for limiting the dissemination of misinformation. False health information poses a grave hazard to public health. It can cause confusion, foster mistrust, damage people’s health, and undermine efforts to promote public health. “Limiting the dissemination of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a society-wide effort,” he stated.
Combatting Health Misinformation: Tools and Strategies to Navigate Online Content
Misinformation can take the form of online parodies, misleading graphics, and cherry-picked statistics, among other things. The US Department of Health and Human Services published a Community Toolkit on health misinformation in 2021, which provides guidance for individuals who encounter health-related content of uncertain veracity. The agency recommends contacting the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or your local public health department to determine if the claim is true. You can also inquire with your health care provider for additional information.
Check online to see if the claim has been validated by a reputable source, such as government agencies or medical journals. If the information is located on a website, consult the “About Us” page to determine whether it is credible. The HHS advises that if you are unsure about online content, you should not share it with others.