Article image

Alarming number of teens can't recognize fake health news

Health misinformation and disinformation are a major public health concern, with a massive spread of fake health news on social media platforms over the past few years. Such fake news are often inaccurate and incomplete and can lead to poor health choices, risk-taking behavior, and loss of trust in health authorities. While research on message credibility has focused largely on adults, a new study led by the Comenius University Bratislava has now investigated to what extent teenagers are equipped to tackle the high volume of online fake health news. 

The analysis revealed that 41 percent of the teenagers were unable to tell the difference between true and fake medical content, and that not even the poor editing of health messages was perceived as a sign of low trustworthiness. 

“There has been an explosion of misinformation in the area of health during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said study principal investigator Radomír Masaryk, an expert in Health Psychology at Comenius. “As adolescents are frequent users of the internet, we usually expect that they already know how to approach and appraise online information, but the opposite seems to be true.”

Previous research has found that teenagers look at the structural features of a website, such as language and appearance, to evaluate the information they find. For instance, authoritative organizations, trusted brands, or the use of business-like language tend to be more trusted. By contrast, the presence of editorial elements like superlatives, clickbait, grammar mistakes, authority appeal, and bold typeface, reduced the credibility of the content.

To test these hypotheses, Professor Masaryk and his colleagues presented 300 teenagers with seven short messages about the health effects of various fruits and vegetables. These messages belonged to different categories: fake messages, true neutral messages, and true messages with editorial elements (superlatives, clickbait etc.) The participants were asked to rate the trustworthiness of the messages.

The teenagers seemed to be able to distinguish between overtly fake health messages and health messages either true or slightly charged with editing elements, with 48 percent of the participants trusting the true neutral health messages more than the fake ones. However, a staggering 41 percent of them considered fake and true neutral messages equally trustworthy, while 11 percent considered true neutral messages less trustworthy than the fake ones.

These rather disheartening results highlight an urgent need for better instruction of teenagers to spot editing cues that give away the quality of a piece of information, and an increase in health literacy and media literacy training to help them develop skills such as analytical thinking and scientific reasoning.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer   

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day