Fake Medical News: Why It's So Potentially Lethal and What You Can Do About It

Conditions are now right for a "perfect storm" of deliberate misinformation that could seriously hurt -- or even kill -- health-care consumers on a mass scale.
Conditions are now right for a "perfect storm" of deliberate misinformation that could seriously hurt -- or even kill -- health-care consumers on a mass scale.

Veteran broadcaster journalist and television news anchor Walter Cronkite would turn over in his grave if he could see what has become of today's news media, which are often criticized for their emphasis on "infotainment" and for pandering to trends instead of reporting actual news.

But Cronkite would groan aloud and do a full somersault underground if he could see the proliferation of fake news that is bombarding audiences these days. 

I'm sure he'd be equally agitated about the danger fake news potentially poses, especially to the most vulnerable among us — the weak, the sick, the disenfranchised and the poor.  

In Cronkite's day, people generally got their news from one or two sources — the evening news on TV and their local newspaper. Maybe they also read a nationally-published magazine, such as Life.

Today, people get their news from sources that are most congruent with their own opinions and beliefs. Or they simply read what's trending or what's gone "viral." This means that the bigger picture — the real news — can be eclipsed by a steady stream of minutiae. These less significant items gain strength every time they are rebroadcast, until they hit you harder than a heavy metal power chord from a Marshall amp stack. 

Cronkite was a newsman who reported the news. He provided straightforward answers to who, what, when, where, why and how — journalism's respected method for the best way to give the complete story on a subject. Reporting what was factually accurate was the mark of a good journalist — and his or her bread and butter. Opinion was kept separate from news reporting in most newspapers. People knew when they were reading an op-ed piece versus a legitimate news story.

Today, it's a veritable free-for-all out there in “Media Land.” The truth is often hidden behind a screen of deft web-spinning or out-and-out lies. And while most members of the media are committed to the same time-honored journalistic principles espoused by veteran newsmen such as Cronkite, there are still some very bad apples out there.

Those bad apples are getting harder and harder to detect and constrain, as fake news and legitimate news often appear side-by-side, competing for the same attention of the health-care consumer.

As social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter become increasingly ubiquitous, lies can quickly gain the upper hand.  They can be disseminated and multiply exponentially in a heartbeat, with potentially far-reaching consequences. What is believed becomes more important than what is true — as those who manipulate the media to their own advantage know all too well.

One could cogently argue that conditions are now right for a "perfect storm" of deliberate misinformation that could seriously hurt — or even kill — health-care consumers on a mass scale.

Think about it.

It's estimated that 44% of Americans now get their news from Facebook.1 But Facebook is a social medium, not a reputable, news-gathering organization. And therein lies the danger. What is seen and heard repetitively on Facebook is more likely to "stick" with your patients than what they read on reputable, medical-news sources.

Dr Cindy Elmore, associate professor of Journalism at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, thinks that fake news is an offshoot or extension of the public relations field that has been adapted to social media.

“With the Internet, those in this field began to recognize that they could bypass the news media altogether and produce positive content about their clients or organizations and disseminate it directly to the public,” said Dr Elmore, who was a journalist for 18 years before earning her PhD and teaching aspiring journalists. “Once this succeeded, darker forces realized they could take this strategy even further and put out damaging information about their competitors directly on the Internet or social media. They also came to realize that this strategy had even more impact when such information appeared to look like and read like legitimate journalism.”

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