Nearly half of teenagers fail to spot fake news about health

You probably know not to trust everything you read on the internet. But how easy is it to spot what’s real and what’s fake?

Researchers interested in health misinformation have discovered it might not be as simple as you think.

Dr Radomír Masaryk and his colleagues at Comenius University in Slovakia wanted to find out how well teenagers were able to recognise true and fake news.

They gave 300 teenagers seven short messages about the effects of fruits and vegetables on the body – some of which were fake and some of which were true.

The true and fake messages were presented in different ways to reflect how this kind of information appears in the real world. The true messages were presented as ‘true neutral’ and ‘true with editorial elements’ (like clickbait, bold typeface or grammatical mistakes).

Rating each message for trustworthiness, 48% of the group were able to spot the difference between overtly fake and true messages — including those with editorial tweaks.

But 41% — nearly half of the group — found the fake and true neutral messages equally trustworthy. And 11% ranked the fake messages higher than the true neutral messages.

Beyond simply spotting outright falsehoods, the results also highlight how difficult it can be to sift between a true health message and one that has been modified for editorial effect.

‘The only version of a health message that was significantly less trusted compared to a true health message was a message with a clickbait headline,’ continued Masaryk, whose research was published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Masaryk and team say that health literacy was really important for understanding how to judge the information we read in the media. Teaching critical reasoning skills to teenagers may help them better spot fake news.

‘Analytical thinking and scientific reasoning are skills that help distinguish false from true health messages,’ Masaryk said.

Back in 2018, researchers at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology discovered that false news appears to spread much faster than accurate information on Twitter.

And the impact of fake news can be deadly.

Over the course of the pandemic, for example, fake news about Covid-19 has spread widely online, encouraging the use of unproven and unsafe remedies and increasing vaccine hesitancy.

The World Health Organisation was so concerned about the overwhelming spread of false health information that it dubbed Covid-19 an ‘infodemic’ as well as a regular pandemic.

A flurry of false information can not only cause harm to individuals — from their health to their relationships — but it can prolong outbreaks of disease as people shun health-promoting behaviours.

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