Skye Sarac Headshot

Recently, I started taking an online class through Coursera called “Understanding Medical Research: Your Facebook is Wrong” because it was free and I wanted to take a fun class to fill the time before Summer Session I. As I started listening to the lectures, I became aware of just how prevalent false information really is.

While some of these claims are more egregious, such as the president of the United States suggesting that injecting disinfectant into your lungs can stop the spread of the coronavirus, other claims are more hidden.

Today, about one in four adults in the U.S. gets at least some portion of their daily news from social media, and we are constantly bombarded with headlines promising a “miracle cure” for certain ailments, or advertising products that promote anti-aging cream or fast weight loss, which often cite various scientific studies to support their claims.

However, according to a study done this year, only a “small percentage” of fake-news claims ever get fact checked by social media platforms. While I’m not suggesting that every study is false, it is true that studies often manipulate information to make their products sound better, which can make it difficult to discern fact from fiction.

Fortunately, social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube have taken measures to eliminate the spread of fake news; some of these platforms are providing “information panels,” which give more details about where the information comes from. However, sometimes it can seem much easier to skip past this extra information, especially when the headlines seem credible or plausible.

F. Perry Wilson, the instructor of the online course I previously mentioned, uses an example of the drug Lipitor, a heart medication, to illustrate the problem with taking the claims in headlines and advertisements at face value. According to the advertisement for Lipitor, the manufacturer claimed the drug had a 36% success rate. However, after absolute versus relative risk was taken into account, the actual data revealed that the drug only prevented one death out of every 100 people.

While this might seem abstract or unrelated—after all, college students are usually not the intended audience for heart medication—studies like these are prevalent across social media, and are often buried beneath medical jargon and statistics that have been skewed or misrepresented.

Even though it might sound tedious or unnecessary, learning terms such as relative and absolute risk as well as having a basic knowledge of statistics and medical terminology could help disseminate the spread of false information and could potentially save your life or someone else’s life.

In addition to learning the terminology needed to navigate an article, it is also important to thoroughly read an article before accepting it is true, as headlines can often be misleading. Recently, hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug, has received a lot of attention in the media for being a potential cure for coronavirus. According to the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, hydroxychloroquine has about a 90% chance of helping COVID-19 patients. While I am not necessarily suggesting this study is wrong, it was conducted with a sample size of 2,333 patients, which is a relatively small sample size considering that currently over 4.2 million people across six continents have contracted COVID-19.

It is also important to double-check the headlines as well as the study itself. While I was doing research for this column, I saw an article abstract from The New England Journal of Medicine which claimed there is robust evidence to support the use of hydroxychloroquine on COVID-19 patients; however, when I read the abstract a second time, I saw that it actually said  “Hydroxychloroquine has been widely administered to patients with COVID-19 without robust evidence supporting its use.”

While it is near impossible to completely eliminate fake or misleading information from our daily social media consumption, the ability to think critically can help us sort fact from fiction. While many of these claims may be harmless, some might have a more serious impact, and it is up to us as students, as well as citizens, to learn how to recognize false information, no matter what our first impressions might lead us to believe.