How fake news creates false hope

An unsupported claim about ‘a complete cure for cancer in a year’ spread across the world recently, spreading false hope for those living with the disease, and their families. In this in-depth investigation, independent researchers Health Feedback track how fake news can travel so fast

This is an edited version of an article which first appears on the Health Feedback website.

Another purported cure-all for cancer

A claim that the ‘first complete cure for cancer’ had been discovered by an Israeli start-up recently made waves online. This claim originated in an article by the Jerusalem Post in which Dan Aridor, CEO of the company Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies (AEBi), announced that they had discovered a cure for cancer using phage display technology.

Upon closer examination of the company’s experimental results, however, it turned out that these claims were based on only a few experiments on cells in petri dishes and one mouse experiment. Such work falls far short of the standard needed for AEBi to make the claims it did, making their statements highly misleading. AEBi’s claims also misled readers about cancer’s fundamental characteristics and the typical drug development timeline.

Media coverage

This claim of a ‘ground-breaking discovery’ spread widely, mostly driven by the initial coverage from the Jerusalem Post. We identified 709 articles linking back to the Jerusalem Post piece, and a few hundreds more covering the claim by conducting a search on Buzzsumo. These articles have been shared nearly 4 million times on social media, as of writing, with Facebook accounting for the overwhelming majority of engagements with all articles (98% of all shares happened on Facebook).

We examined each English-language article reporting AEBi’s claims which were shared at least 5,000 times (a total of 76). Most of these were news articles, blog posts, commentaries or opinion pieces. Some appeared in partisan outlets such as The Daily Wire, The Western Journal, the Geller Report, The Rush Limbaugh Show and The Federalist.

We found that 59 of these articles took the claim reported by the Jerusalem Post at face value. These articles failed to perform significant fact-checking or scientific verification of these claims (some included only a very minimal check with independent experts) – a basic practice within responsible journalism. These articles also failed to signal to readers that the report was unsubstantiated. We classified these unreliable articles as ‘repeat’.

Of the 59 articles rated ‘repeat’, Fox News articles stood out, representing 17 articles appearing across various Fox News domains. Most of the articles within the blog/commentary/opinion category were also found to be unreliable and repeated the claim without fact-checking. One of these articles originated from the Natural News blog – a well-known source of misleading and/or inaccurate health news – yet it still garnered more than 17,000 shares on Facebook.

A total of 10 articles reported both AEBi’s misleading claims and the point of view of independent physicians and scientists, but did not help readers to assess which claims were more likely correct.

Only seven articles performed the necessary fact-checking of the claims by seeking experts’ feedback or independently checking current scientific evidence. We classified these articles as ‘fact-checked’. These were published by Daily MailIFLScienceWiredNewsweekForbes and the blogs A Science Enthusiast and Science-Based Medicine.

More trustworthy results on Google

In addition to our Buzzsumo analysis, we also performed several Google searches from different computers in different locations for ‘cure cancer’ in the past month. As most readers interact only with the results from the first page, we limited our analysis only to the articles showing on the first page in at least one search.

Most first-page articles were related to the Jerusalem Post article, in keeping with its popularity. However, our results this time were more encouraging. Most of the listed articles had performed fact-checking, verified the scientific evidence and debunked the hype (10 out of 14).

Despite the overwhelmingly large number of shares enjoyed by misleading articles on Facebook, only three articles repeating the claim made it to the first page. This indicates Google has a better way of highlighting trustworthy sources, although the presence of misinformation is problematic since users often rely on Google for fact-checking.

Aftermath of claim

AEBi’s claims were roundly criticised by numerous physicians and researchers working on cancer because of the lack of supporting evidence. Certain news outlets, such as Forbes and New York Post, which had published articles announcing these claims without fact-checking, later published articles with comments by relevant experts that explained the problems with AEBi’s claims.

Unfortunately, all this has come too late. None of the later articles involving fact-checking made it to our list of widely-shared articles based on the Jerusalem Post report. Two of the correcting articles from Forbes have each been shared 6,200 and 2,800 times, while the one from the New York Post has been shared 3,500 times. Contrast these numbers with the shares of their earlier, misleading articles – which currently stand at over 790,000 times (Forbes) and over 260,000 times (New York Post). To date, these two media outlets have misinformed more people than they have informed.

None of the later articles involving fact-checking made it to our list of widely-shared articles based on the Jerusalem Post report.

One of the articles correcting the record was published by Wired; this critiqued the premature claims, commenting on how similar they were to past sensational claims about cancer cure-alls which turned out to be false or unfounded. The article also highlighted how a lack of critical thinking, and a desire for positivity, drives the propagation of misinformation of this sort.

We have found that the amount of media coverage which is not credible greatly outweighs that of credible sources. The number of shares from non-credible (‘repeat’) articles was more than 3.4 million (87.3% of total shares) while credible articles accounted for just over 120,000 of total shares, a mere 3.1%.

In summary, our observations strongly indicate that the public is not likely to have come across an insightful and accurate scientific evaluation of the claims. Instead, many people have been exposed to – and maybe have come away with – the idea that all cancers will be completely cured ‘within a few years’, as AEBi claimed, when all evidence points to the contrary.

Our observations strongly indicate that the public is not likely to have come across an insightful and accurate scientific evaluation of the claims.

When the mission of journalists is, arguably, to leave readers better informed, hundreds of online news sites have instead done the exact opposite. Omitting investigative reporting and independent verification of scientific facts in favour of attention-grabbing headlines –whose effects are amplified by the power of Facebook’s reach– has led to the misleading of many readers.

Such unfounded sensational claims merely provide false hope for desperate patients and their loved ones, causing unwarranted emotional and psychological distress – and, when such claims are found to be false, it only adds to the public’s distrust of the medical and scientific communities, which has negative consequences for the public’s attitude towards informed health advice by experts.

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