Four tips to identify, debunk false health claims shared on social media

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The internet has become a breeding ground for health misinformation and thus poses a significant threat to public health.

False health-related claims make up a significant part of fake news and misinformation that is being spread via social media in today’s world, as users of these social media networks routinely tout questionable health claims unsupported by scientific research or medical evidence.

From claims of ‘miracle’ cures for ulcer as seen here and here, to bizarre anecdotes like ‘baby born holding mum’s failed IUD,’ these tips will guide you on how to identify and verify bogus health claims circulating online, thus enabling you to make informed decisions about your well-being.

 

1. VERIFY THE SOURCE

Once you come across any health claim either via texts, audio or video, it is essential to question the source; do not take anything at face value. 

How credible is the individual or website that shared the information? Is the website a verified health platform? Is the individual a licensed health practitioner in the field under discussion? Can the sources’ credentials be independently verified?”

Be aware, for instance, that titles can be deceiving. “Doctor” can refer to any number of things: a medical doctor (MD), a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), a doctor of science (Sc.D.) or an honorary doctorate.

To get to the bottom of this, do a quick search for the credentials and associations of the person or organization making the claim and ensure that their qualifications are relevant to their claims. 

Also, in this era of the internet age, a lot of people have digital footprint. So, to verify the authenticity of any health claim shared on social media, you could reach out to the author, if necessary, to seek more clarification.

Be wary if you cannot independently verify someone’s academic qualifications, just having a look to see who else is talking about the claim can help you discern between fact and fiction. 

Important breakthroughs in medicine will be covered by major news agencies, websites, radio stations, and television channels and published on reputable medical websites. If the treatment has not received recognition on these platforms, it is unlikely that there is sound evidence that it works.

 

2. ASK LICENCED HEALTH PRACTITIONERS

When in doubt, ask licensed medical or health practitioners around you. Also, speaking to friends, and relatives who are experts in the field can help provide better insights on the issue or topic.

For instance, The FactCheckHub regularly reach out to certified health professionals including members of the Nigeria Medical Association, Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria, Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors and Nursing & Midwifery Council of Nigeria, among others to verify the accuracy or otherwise of health-related claims shared on social media platforms by users.

Some health claims already debunked by The FactCheckHub can be found here, here, and here

Also, note that if it looks too good to be true, it usually isn’t factual. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that products sold as a panacea, capable of treating a range of ailments, are usually hoaxes.

 

3. USE ADVANCED INTERNET SEARCH

If you were unable to find any medical or health practitioner to debunk or verify a claim, you can use advanced internet search to access health-related published works, including from scientific and medical journals such as Nature Medicine, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) etc.

The abstracts of most published studies are available online and they should give you a good overview of their findings.

Currently, there is growing support for health information to be made universally accessible, courtesy of global and national bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO); Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention; National Health Service; National Institutes of Health (NIH) etc.

When it comes to health advice, always turn to trusted websites like Google Scholar which will bring up results from the most reputable academic journals. Be wary of the common misconception that because something is labelled “herbal,” it cannot be harmful.

In addition, health-focused platforms like the National Library of Medicine, WebMDNational Health Service, or Healthline can be used to check if a health claim has medical backing or not.

 

4. FOLLOW VERIFIED FACT-CHECKING WEBSITES

Whilst proven treatments are usually marketed directly to the medical community, quacks often go straight to the media or social media platforms and rely on the press and the public to advertise their products or fake claims to the public. 

But it cannot only be left to the press to snuff out misinformation, especially those myths that are widespread through instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram, WeChat and Facebook Messenger, among others.

To help tackle health misinformation, follow fact-checking platforms like the FactCheckHub, Africa Check, Dubawa and PolitiFact etc which debunk viral health claims from time to time. You can also learn more by reading about FDA’s Health Fraud Scams.

Similarly, you can also submit any health claim that you want to verify on any of these websites. This can help you hone your ability to sift through fake and fraudulent health claims regularly and most importantly, guide you to making informed decision about your health.

FactCheckHub | Website | + posts

Amala is a tactical Fact-Checker, who is passionate about using Fact-checking to curb the spread of Misinformation and Disinformation which has become prevalent in the media space. She can be reached on X at muonweblessing and LinkedIn on Amala Blessing Muonwe

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