The dangers and challenges of misinformation

From the desk of J D Faccinetti, co-founder, an op-ed – The whole thing about misinformation is that it is dangerous. More specifically, people can get hurt, needlessly sick, and die following internet quacks’ advice. Since our first published article in 2014, we have been thinking and writing about social media and internet misinformation. The cosmic speed at which misinformation spreads makes it very problematic, and sadly, there seems to be no end in sight.

Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy made a compelling argument to the U.S. population. “Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health,” he said. “It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, and undermine public health efforts, including our ongoing work to end the COVID-19 pandemic. From the tech and social media companies who must do more to address the spread on their platforms to all of us identifying and avoiding sharing misinformation, tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach. Still, it is critical for the long-term health of our nation”, he added. We wholeheartedly agree and could not have said it better!

Dr. Lewis Blevins, co-founder, and professor of neurological surgery and medicine at the  University of California San Francisco says he sees and hears examples of misinformation in his practice daily. He writes, “Social media, and the propagated opinions of those who feel they are experts simply because they have a disease or, if healthcare providers are choosing to treat diseases in an arena where they have no particular expertise, have, in many cases, mythologized reality.” He goes on to say, “Doctors recommend treatments that aren’t proven effective. Patients ask for laboratory tests and treatments that have no clinically meaningful use. Patients refute diagnoses, even in the face of normal test results, based on things they have read or seen on social media.”  Dr. Blevins tells me he spends a considerable amount of time each week debunking myths and re-orienting patients to the correct diagnosis following a proper interpretation of laboratory tests and radiographs. He relates, “It’s sometimes quite difficult to offer and have accepted an opinion different from what has been believed as a result of misinformation gleaned on social media.”

The tendency of people to overestimate their expertise  

Misinformation comes from mainly those who write without knowing that what they are spreading is not factual or accurate. This group carelessly spreads what they hear without concerns about where that information is coming from. And there are those who purposely and knowingly mislead for whatever gain they think they can achieve, sometimes political, sometimes financial, sometimes in their never-ending quest to be the center of attention. Unfortunately, many of these quacks and internet fringe-dwellers are successfully prying on people’s fears and insecurities by undermining science-based knowledge.

The tendency of people to overestimate how much they know about any given subject has been described in the psychology and general press and has generated considerable debate. Overestimating knowledge is also known as cognitive bias, partly explained by something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. If you want to learn more, watch this. It’s pretty interesting.  And for another perspective, This article looks at the debate and offers good background information that will give you more thoughts on the subject.

Adam Grant, an American organizational psychologist and Warton Business School professor, explores people’s tendency to overestimate their knowledge in any given subject and defines this tendency to opine without expertise on a subject as “being on mount stupid.” In his book Think Again. The power of knowing what you don’t know, he explains that as people gain experience with a subject, confidence climbs faster than their competence. The book encourages readers to think more like scientists, embrace doubt and check that opinions are based on credible, proven facts. To a certain extent, we all do this, some more than others.

That is why, when it comes to the internet, it’s better to live in what the author calls “confident humility” and know what you don’t know. So, I would encourage you to give it a read, or at the very least, google it. If nothing else, it will give you something to think about.

And now, we complain about Facebook.

Not to discount the many positives that social media has brought us, one of the things that annoy me about these companies, Facebook specifically, is that they don’t seem to think about the consequences of their moves in an everlasting quest to make money.

On the one hand, they allow a bunch of misinformation and nonfactual information on their platform. Still, on the other hand, in what can only be described as careless and short-sighted, they restrict the reach of science, fact-based organization. Let me explain. When nonprofits such as Pituitary World News started in 2014, we enjoyed wide distribution on social media. On average, when we posted, we would typically reach tens of thousands of people in the social media pituitary communities around the world.  If people express a desire to see our content, Facebook made it available. Today, thanks to restrictive strategies and complicated algorithms, reach is down to a couple of hundreds per post. That means that our publication relies more on organic searches that get to the public without the help of Facebook and other social media platforms. You may have liked us on FB and think you see all our posts, but you’re not. You are missing a good chunk of them. For example, recently, we had a “live” zoom round table discussion event on mental and emotional health, an extremely vital subject to pituitary patients. To my surprise, we heard from people that rely on Facebook indicating they had not seen the post announcing the event. All expressed interest in the subject but missed the discussion, and the chance to ask live questions of experts because the algorithm decided they did not need to see this notice. We should note that we have made available a recording of the discussion, so you can now watch it here if you missed it.

What to do.

We recommend that you carefully consider the source when you seek information on social media platforms before you share it. Try to confirm the information independently with trusted sources. We are in the process of producing a PWN section that will list generally acceptable, trusted, scientifically based sources, which we will publish soon. Please stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, we encourage you to subscribe to Pituitary World News using the “Subscribe to our content” link on the publication’s front page. It’s free. I would also like to remind you that it is our policy to protect the contact information you provide ensuring the complete and absolute privacy of our readers. We will never share your email with anyone or use it for anything else other than to send you a notice every time we publish a new article so you can see it, then you can decide if you want to read it, not some social media algorithm.


Image by Pixelkult from Pixabay 



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