The arrival of the digital era has forever changed how we acquire "news" – the ultra-connected want news as quick as possible; with the touch of a screen. The best news organisations are now those that churn out accurate news the quickest. However, many digital writers often forget about accuracy and rush news out without fact- or source-checking.

For medical news particularly, it is highly dangerous as misleading headlines and facts can lead to the propagation of falsehoods and misrepresentations. Such fake news, especially if related to a communicable disease or personal problem, may amplify negative effects on patients' emotional and physical well-being, and in the worst case scenario, lead to suicidal ideation or suicide itself.

Sensational headlines are amongst the culprits

If readers do not read further than a sensational headline to gain more depth and context, misinterpretations will occur. Take, for example, an article with a headline stating that "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy" from December 2015.

Delving deeper into the article, it cites no accurate data about birth control and the majority of the article is made up of fear-mongering and false facts related to the hormonal compounds claiming that they are harmful. It reinstates the old age myth that birth control makes "women fat".

The truth is, weight gain is a temporary side effect that is due to fluid retention and not deposition of fat as the article claimed. A review of over 40 articles revealed that there is no evidence to support the statement that birth control leads to weight gain. The fluid retention often resolves within three months from the start of consumption of the medication.

And even so, that was in the 1960s when high levels of oestrogen were responsible for fluid retention and increased appetite. Modern formulations have lower levels of oestrogen and progestin, so weight gain is no longer a side effect.

The case of Hillary's medical records

Another example is the circulation of Hillary Clinton's fake medical records on several websites in late August. By the time they were disputed by her private physician, Dr. Lisa Bardack and, the damage was irreversible.

Originally posted on a now-deleted twitter account called Hillary's Records (@hillsMedRecords), the "medical documents" that were supposedly from Bardack, claimed that Hillary showed signs of "advancing subcortical vascular dementia" and "frequent complex partial seizures", amongst others. Bardack confirmed that the documents were "false, were not written by me and are not based on any medical facts."

She stated that Hillary was in fact "in excellent health and fit to serve as President of the United States." There is no evidence to state if this piece of news affected Hillary's chances of winning the presidency.

Social media fuels the problem

This year especially, the adage that "falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it" does not begin to describe the problem - the idea just assumes that truth eventually catches up.

There's not much evidence of this happening for the millions of people lured into believing fake news stories - like the birth control story or the "autism-causing MMR vaccine" scandal years ago - especially when they have been spread on social media sites.

But a big part of the responsibility lies with internet companies such as Facebook and Google that have connected us all, making it easy for fake news to be shared almost instantly with millions of users - and they have been slow to block it from their sites.

However, a pattern emerges fake news are the most engaged pieces of news - in terms of shares, likes and comments. So why do people fall for fake news?

You are what you click

Delving into a psychological aspect, an individual's behaviour on Facebook is decoded by the company's algorithms and creates a user profile - one that shapes content suggestions. So if one is exposed to a steady stream of fake or wildly biased news on social media, he or she probably has revealed an appetite for both without knowing it.

Many social experiments also prove that humans easily conform to trends. So if a piece of medical news - fake or not - is being talked about by many, our psychological behaviour reacts to believe the news.
Then combining the clicks of everyone with a similar appetite, an emphasis on what's trending is placed and coupled with the size and reach of social media sites, fake news becomes a global phenomenon in an instant.

Even if Facebook and Google make efforts, and medical sites that aggregate content using RSS feeds do pay attention to the purveyor of such articles, this top-down extinguishing method cannot touch the sparks that are always coming from the bottom up – from us, the readers.

So the best solution is for readers to constantly question and rely on information from reputable news organisations, which require reporters to constantly verify information and link it to a source, along with peer-reviewed medical journals or the CDC. MIMS

Read more:
The Doctor’s FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)
Should patients listen to celebrities or their doctor?
Trusting medical professionals: The importance of respecting patient confidentiality
3 excellent ways for healthcare professionals to stay current with medical news and literature