Look for these signs to identify false information online

The Internet is overflowing with health-related information. There is just so much of it that anyone can sometimes find it difficult to distinguish reliable and unreliable information. This article provides tools for identifying false information online.

Every one of us has at some point been taken in, at least for a moment, by a piece of fake news, a doctored image or some other misleading information. This is because of how the human mind works.

We are all prone to believe information that supports our understanding of the world. In contrast, we reject information that contradicts our own opinions and beliefs.

This is difficult to identify in oneself, but those that are aware of it are already well prepared for fighting false information. Before you share something on social media, stop and think. Do you really just believe this because you want to believe it? Is this really true?

Fake news and other misleading material normally seeks to appeal to our emotions. If you are about to share some information and are gripped by strong emotions, pause for a moment. Try stopping and counting to 10 before sharing anything on social media.

Who benefits from the dissemination of false information?

It is understandable that illnesses and infectious diseases cause people concern. It is precisely this concern and fear that disseminators of false information seize on. Some are after commercial gain: they are trying to sell treatments and remedies that have no medical basis.

Others disseminate misleading health information for other reasons. It can be linked to their own sincere beliefs and they often do not think that they are spreading lies. Sometimes false information is disseminated for political or ideological reasons. For example, disproved health claims about coronavirus have been linked to particular political aims.

It is often difficult, sometimes even impossible, to find out who has started the spread of particular lies or rumours. Behind the misleading information can be the actions of a state, company, organisation, political party or some other group. In most cases, however, false information is disseminated by individuals.

The actual content, nevertheless, often comes from countries other than Finland. The same rumours, fake news and conspiracy theories are circulating all around the world and are only slightly modified to fit a particular culture.

It is therefore worth considering who benefits from the dissemination of false information. Is there an underlying political, ideological or commercial interest?

What is reliable information like?

What, then, can you trust? When reading news, for example, it is worth paying attention to whether it clearly states where the information is from. Fake news sites can be dressed up to look very reliable. Check whether this is a news source that is committed to the Guidelines for Journalists. 
Think about who is speaking in the news piece and what expertise they have: 

  • Is it a researcher or expert who has worked extensively on the topic, or just a layperson? For example, the fact that a person is a doctor or professor does not mean that they are an expert in the particular field in question.
  • Does the news item refer to sources of information, such as studies, statistics, interviews or other material? 
  • Are the sources of information those that can provide real information on this particular issue? Does the evidence relate to the actual matter under consideration? Watch out for cases where an individual's story is presented as evidence for a wider phenomenon.
  • Are the sources interpreted and quoted correctly?

For example, search engines such as Google can be used to try and find out how the majority of experts in the field perceive a particular health issue. This is usually a good sign of reliability.
It is also common for health information to be disseminated online on topics which have not yet received scientific research. This could relate to things such as a new breakthrough cure for a familiar disease or a new miracle diet. In such cases, search engines will not be useful because the matter has not yet been researched. 

This is a good warning sign: if there are no research results available on the matter, you should be cautious about the claims. 

What is scientific knowledge like?

It is common practice for disseminators of false information to juxtapose medical science and alternative health information. They say, ‘doctors won't tell you this’ or ‘official medical science conceals this from you’.

Consider such claims as a marketing trick and think again about who benefits from them. For example, is some person or organisation selling related products and services? How would the health authorities benefit from hiding information?

What, then, is scientific knowledge like? The authors of scientific research directly explain how the research has been conducted and the limitations it has. Science is based on continuous testing and correction. New tests and studies are carried out on the basis of critique and new observations. In this way, the understanding of the objects of research is continuously improved and clarified. An individual research result is not yet sufficient for drawing scientific conclusions.

Scientific knowledge is not, therefore, a matter of opinion. Fake news, rumours and conspiracy theories can be recognized by the fact that they cannot withstand genuine critical examination.

5 questions to consider for all new information – A quick guide to identifying incorrect information

  1. What is the basis for the information or claim? Does the publisher directly tell you where the information comes from? Are the sources quoted correctly?
  2. What do you know about the publisher? If the new, stirring information is only found on one social media account or on an unknown web page, this should get the alarm bells ringing. Check to see if one of your known, trusted news channels has published anything on the topic. In Finland, all reliable media channels have committed to the Guidelines for Journalists.
  3. Is it a fact or an opinion? Sometimes people try to express opinions as facts.
  4. Who will benefit from this? Consider whether the allegations are being disseminated by a person or organisation that can benefit from them politically or commercially.
  5. Would you cause unnecessary panic or confusion if you spread this information? Studies show that people easily trust social media links shared by their family and friends. Don't mislead others if you yourself are not sure about the matter.

More on the topic

Disinformation: how to recognise and tackle Covid-19 myths (European Parliament)

How to spot when news is fake – compass tool (pdf 637 kB) (European Parliament)

A manual for trustworthy social media influencers

Content confusion survival guide (in Finnish)

The COVID-19 vaccine Communication Handbook