Information and Communications Technology (ICT) over the past few years have changed the way of communication. Among all the communication mediums, social media, in particular, has got a lot of attention and offers a huge benefit over traditional media. It has empowered the common man to quickly and easily get access to a broad range of information, and express their personal experience, thoughts and views on the same. However, every coin has two faces. Amid a lot of benefits that social media provides, there are many negative aspects associated with it, which are hard to neglect. Privacy is one of the critical issues today. Recently “WhatsApp” (a messaging application) has gotten significant attention after it updated its privacy policy in January (2021). Lethargy and sedentary lifestyle is another issue that has significantly cut down on the physical movement of humans.  Another worrisome impact of the advanced technology that has recently emerged is fake news. It is another baleful aspect growing significantly and honestly, the concept of misinformation or disinformation is not new to human ears and eyes. It existed in the age of traditional paper-based age of communication as well; however, it was not easy to relay. In today’s time, tackling the fake news ( or false information) has become one of the biggest and gravest problems. What makes it hard to tackle in the times of the Internet and advanced ICT is that it spreads like a wildfire. Interestingly enough,  there exists surveys and proof that has shown that fake news spreads at a much faster rate than the real genuine news.

So, what fake news is? Fake news is a piece of news, information or stories in the form of text, images, audio or videos that are factually incorrect. These are fabricated, with no verifiable facts and sources, and are spread intentionally to mislead the general public for personal, political, or economic agendas. The fake news is in circulation for ages; the main agenda is to gain some economic and political advantage; the only thing that changed over the year is the communication channels and devices. In the economy, fake news can fluctuate the stock market and currency of a country, economic growth, consumers perception and decision-making toward products and companies. It can damage a person’s reputation or elected representative by influencing the public opinion or destabilising the government by creating distrust at the political level. 

Almost all the industries or sectors are prone to fall prey to fake news; and, the healthcare sector is no different. Health rumours and unverified information and claims can cause more havoc to public health and safety. 

What happened due to fake news in healthcare?

In today’s digital connected world, a piece of information can travel like a virus from one corner of the world to another within a matter of seconds. Fake news in healthcare can have dire consequences and poses a very high potential threat to public health. In the recent time during the COVID-19 outbreak, the internet is overloaded with a lot of information. The pandemic has created anxiety and fear in the general public. Everyone eagerly wants to know more about the disease, its sign, symptoms, risk factors, vaccine development and various other aspects. However, not every piece of written or published information is credible.

With their tremendous efforts, the governments have been able to control the information flow to a larger extent. But still, many of the misleading and unverified facts related to non-pharmaceutical interventions, immunity-boosting recipes, and medicinal remedies for Covid-19, have been able to convince a significant number of people worldwide. All this information from the unverified source and agency have the potential to harm the person physically. 

The information related to disease and their treatment, vaccinations, food, and nutrition is the most shared healthcare article on social media and related platforms. 

Today a lot of misinformation is in the air related to cures for diseases such as cancer, HIV, Alzheimer’s and many other disorders over the internet and social media. “Scientists have found a cure for HIV”, “tongue exercise can cure Alzheimer’s” and many other exaggerated claims are widely circulated. Over a while, this misinformation starts to influence consumers’ behaviour; they take them seriously, although they might not be from a credible source or author. 

Similarly, various dangerous health advice related to smoking, nutrition, and benefits of marijuana also gain significant attention from the consumer. The misinformation on vaccination over the years has created a vaccine hesitancy in people, particularly in European countries. Fake news is also one of the reasons for the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate. According to the World Health Organization, vaccine hesitancy today is one of the top ten threats to global health.

The fake health news can impact a patient’s decision-making, which can lead to delay in medical treatment and high expenditure on unnecessary remedies. Studies have found that the fake information shared by peers, colleagues, or family members is more likely to influence a person’s thinking. Extensive social engagement, with thousands for like, share and comments, also make a story trustworthy. A very high social engagement may hesitate the patients to follow the doctor’s treatment plans and may even create doubt and panic in his mind.

Whose responsibility is to tackle fake news?

The information and communication technology has equipped human beings with very high capability to disseminate information to a large audience with just a share button. It has opened many new dimensions and is expanding day by day. With the expansion, it is challenging for governments and health agencies to tackle and break the circle of fake healthcare news. In the case of disease and medical issues, it becomes increasingly important to check and evaluate data sources at the first point. 

Among all the stakeholders, the greater responsibility lies on the platform that provides space for the communication. The social media or search engine platform can block specific search results and limit the impact of the content’s reach. Similarly, it can alert the user about the manipulative campaigns or content on its platform. However, the user may feel this as a traditional authoritative approach. Today, most social media platforms regulate the content and take help from third-party fact-checking sites, reducing the flow of fake news. 

At their end, the government can also bring laws and regulations that can strictly deal with fake news peddlers. Providing training to reporters & media outlets and digital literacy to the general public can prevent fake news circulation to a considerable extent. In addition to it, the government can collaborate with health institutions and professionals to verify and correct the news and its distribution to the public. 

How can you spot fake health news?

Fake news is one of the growing concerns today. From using highly exaggerated language to a very high social engagement, the trends and practices change from time to time.  To protect itself from fake news, consumers need to verify the information source manually. Unverified news and articles should not be shared unless the source, author credentials, date of publication and supporting sources are verified. Similarly, in the case of doubts, especially related to healthcare or medical, one can ask the industry expert or physician. With best practices and information, one can easily tackle the fake news and its consequences.