Spotting Fake Health Statistics

In our current day and age, it has become almost a norm for people to rely on social media as a source for news, for cooking videos, for shopping and more recently, even for health advice. This widespread circulation of potentially fake articles about health statistics can be misleading at best and extremely dangerous at worst. Not only are fake health articles appearing on social media, but they are also being shared more readily than reputable articles. Social media makes it extremely easy to share articles quickly and often the articles shared on these platforms are more simple and easy to read than lengthy health journal publications. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, almost three-quarters of internet users are on Facebook, of which 66% of users get their news from Facebook. The fake news phenomenon can become very dangerous when it comes to health issues and people relying on online sources to treat their potential health conditions.

How do these health statistics affect the Berkeley community? According to a survey I conducted with people of the Berkeley Community, 83.3% of Berkeley students said they saw articles relating to health statistics on their social media feeds and 73% of people who responded said that they read the articles if they had a catchy title. Although 83% of people who answered the survey said they erred on the side of caution with these articles – answering less than six on a scale with one being very critical and ten being very trusting — 41.7 % of people still said that they found themselves applying some of the activities they read about into their daily lives.

Many of these health statistic articles have catchy titles that stick in people’s heads. For example, these articles can have titles like LiveScience’s article “Gum-Chewing Improves Test Performance, Study Suggests” and VeryWell’s article “Things You Need to Know About Chocolate and Longevity.” Many of these articles appeal to what people want to hear and give justifications for activities we participate in in our daily lives. Often these articles are formulated similarly with a mix of medical terms and easy to read sentences, catchy titles, very large and convincing statistical numbers and bright colors with a lot of images. Although some of these articles may come from credible sources it is important to analyze these articles critically before replacing studying with a piece of chewing gum. Many of these articles have ulterior motives and can be written by people who work for the companies selling the goods. These articles do not have to be peer-reviewed or checked by credible sources before being released on social media to act like super advertisements loaded with believable statistics.

Analyzing health articles can be very difficult especially for those who have never taken a statistics class. There are a couple easy steps that can be followed to stay analytical of these statistical articles.  Firstly, it is important to look at who sponsored the article. If an article refers to a survey that supports its product but was sponsored by product manufacturers, then the article should probably not be trusted because of potential conflicts of interest. Another important factor is whether the surveys come from voluntary response statistics. If the survey is through voluntary responses it will often include response bias because people who reply to these surveys are more likely to have very strong opinions. It is also important to look for faulty conclusions that claim associations between two variables are causal and to stay aware of journal biases that will only publish the positive results. Finally, always watch out for small sample sizes as well as very precise percentages and numbers. Even without any statistical knowledge, with these ideas in mind you can stay critical of health surveys and statistics and avoid falling for misleading traps.

When confronted with health articles and statistics on social media it is important to remember that many of these articles have ulterior motives and feed readers information that they want to hear. Although these articles can sound catchy, interesting, fun, and easy to read, it is essential to stay analytical and to avoid applying advice from these articles without verifying sources. Instead of relying on health articles from your newsfeed, try looking for articles on Psychology Today, Scientific American, or Discover.