Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fake News Can Kill

One mother of young children sent me a Facebook-disseminated story about vaccines from a site called Neon Nettle.  Neon Nettle is a mostly fake news site about health research and health issues.

This particular story (not linking to it but to the corrections) argued that the process of creating the flu vaccine was what caused the mutation of the flu virus, supposedly into a more deadly form.  The site posts a lot of anti-vaccination fake news, and this particular mother had used the site's misinformation as the basis for her decision not to get anyone in her family vaccinated.

Fake news are not only a problem in political propaganda, but much more widely, and the online era has expanded the reach of such news to a far larger audience.  In the past health news, for instance, were reported by the established press, and the largest newspapers (often the intermediate sources for smaller newspapers) employed properly trained health care reporters.

This is no longer the case.  Anyone with net access can make up news or interpret them.  The evaluation of the truth value of such news is left to the audience.  Clearly, many cannot evaluate information in those terms, and in some cases shouldn't even be asked to do so.*

Add to this the clickbait value of certain types of research findings, and we get an environment where sloppy reporting and fake news are rewarded**.  It's that reward structure we need to change. 


* Because sometimes the problem is in the studies themselves, in bad methodology, poorly interpreted results and so on.  Reporters covering health research on a full-time basis often know enough basic statistics and have learned which journals are not real peer-reviewed ones.  This allows them to avoid publicizing most bad research.

But one study looks like another study in truth value to a lay reader, and the cleverer fake news sites use that and a pseudo-scientific writing style to make their lies look credible.

In other words, education can help in making the audience more informed about fake news, but it cannot be a complete substitute for higher quality reporting.

** For an example which is not about fake reporting but about the lack of incentives for publishing any corrections to that initial reporting, see this post.

Note, also, that the way some social media sites try to respond to our past reading and browsing behavior can make this problem more severe, if they first give you suggestions which are similar to your past choices.   That "tailoring to individual preferences" reinforces the walls of already existing separate information bubbles.