More than 50% of cancer articles on social media contained either misinformation or harmful information, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.1 While misinformation has plagued the public health field for decades, social media has amplified its spread.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines misinformation as “false information shared by people who do not intend to mislead others.”2 Meanwhile, when bad actors spread misinformation for malicious purposes, it is called disinformation.2 Bots, or software that proliferates information, and trolls, or individuals with false identities, disseminate misinformation about vaccines, which creates division and fuels mistrust in science.3
A recent study of Pinterest, where 70% of users are female, found that 11% of sampled posts on breast cancer contained misinformation.4 About 20% of posts had overstated claims about herbs and supplements, including one post on cures that contained a photo of colloidal silver, which can cause seizures and kidney damage.4 Social media posts about “cures” may affect cancer treatment decisions and cause direct physical harm.4
Both medical and public health leaders are beginning to develop strategies for this public health crisis. At the American Public Health Association’s Misinformation Symposium in August 2021, Joan Donovan of the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy spoke on countering misinformation using evidence-based techniques such as systematic monitoring practices, collaborating with journalists, and setting up push notifications through SMS to rapidly disseminate information.5,6
In addition, the New England Journal of Medicine recently published a piece on the COVID-19 “infodemic” that urged an epidemiologic model to combat misinformation with regular surveillance, misinformation classification, and rapid response.7 Industry leaders are also developing field guides and alert systems.8 While experts developed these techniques for vaccine misinformation, they will be translatable to tackling cancer misinformation.
Additionally, pharma companies can work with stakeholders to address misinformation in three ways:
- Building programs that actively monitor and debunk myths and facilitate real-time “damage control” to address new misinformation threats.8
- Creating a separate web page for oncology products that can serve as a source of truth and be regularly updated to address newly identified myths.6
- Crafting research-informed, culturally relevant messages to distribute through trusted peer and community networks.
Misinformation has reached a critical tipping point, but the industry can help combat these falsehoods through evidence-based approaches.
1. Johnson SB, Parsons M, Dorff T, et al. “Cancer misinformation and harmful information on Facebook and other social media: a brief report.” J Natl Cancer Inst. Published online July 22, 2021. Doi:10.1093/jnci/djab141
3. Broniatowski DA, Jamison AM, Qi S, et al. “Weaponized health communication: Twitter bots and Russian trolls amplify the vaccine debate.” Am J Public Health. 2018;108(10):1378-1384.
4. Wilner T, Holton A. “Breast cancer prevention and treatment: misinformation on Pinterest, 2018.” Am J Public Health. 2020;110(suppl 3):S300-S304.
6. Donovan J. “Concrete recommendations for cutting through misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Am J Public Health. 2020;110(suppl 3):S286-S287.
7. Scales D, Gorman J, Jamieson KH. “The COVID-19 infodemic—Applying the epidemiologic model to counter misinformation.” N Engl J Med. 2021;385(8):678