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Why many people are vulnerable to "fake news" – and what we can do to help

October 15, 2020

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare consumers and professionals alike have sought the most current and reliable information possible to combat misinformation and ensure safe practices.

For many, telling fact from fiction has been a challenge -- especially as we deal with a new disease caused be a new coronavirus that has not been seen before in humans.

Celebrating Health Literacy Month

As an academic institution, we at Baystate Health are especially aware that supporting health literacy is a big part of empowering consumers.

This Health Literacy Month, Ellen Brassil, a health sciences librarian at the Baystate Health Health Sciences Library, offers tips for finding accurate information.

Why “Fake News” is Dangerous

The anxiety caused by COVID-19 has created an atmosphere that’s ripe for health misinformation and misleading theories that can undermine safe health practices. Examples of dangerous “fake news” are everywhere – from people fearing that mask-wearing is “unhealthy” to the spread of conspiracy theories that doubt the seriousness of the global pandemic. In 2020, it is very easy to see the effects of misinformation on public health.

While there are many reasons why we may believe something that isn’t true, some populations are more vulnerable to misinformation than others.

Health sciences librarians have long known that a serious condition or diagnosis can affect a patient’s reading comprehension and can diminish their sense of control. Other circumstances that can make people more vulnerable to misinformation, including:

  • Poverty and economic hardship
  • Language barriers
  • Lack of access to certain technology
  • Lack of awareness for how to identify reliable information
  • Limited access to healthcare providers or routine health screenings
  • Distress caused by serious illness (in which case, scammers may try to take advantage and sell a non-existent “cure,” for example)

While misinformation is everywhere, we also know that trusted health information can be reassuring and help restore the lost sense of autonomy.

Fighting Misinformation and Identifying Trustworthy Sources

Given the amount of misinformation online, it can be an extra challenge for more vulnerable populations who often struggle to find meaningful health information.

Consumers should be cautious when using commercial .com websites, and be careful when sites have broken links, spelling errors or lack contact information, says Brassil.

Instead, look for trusted sources based in facts and research.

The Baystate Health Sciences Library is a good place to start.

We have curated a consumer health subject guide on COVID-19 and can recommend many other resources to fill any information gaps for accurate COVID-19 information. This subject guide can help non-health professionals answer basic, critical questions about how to stay safe and well.

Baystate Consumer Health Library for Patients & Families

It’s important to remember that even the best online health information does not replace communication with your own healthcare provider. However, you can learn a lot from fact-driven resources that come from reputable health organizations including Baystate’s own Consumer Health Library.

You can find trustworthy information through the Library’s subscriptions resources, all of which are available in a variety of languages. If you’re looking for information on a topic you don’t find in the COVID-19 subject guide or library databases, we encourage you to contact Baystate’s Library and Knowledge Services or submit a question through the Ask a Librarian request form.

Other Fact-Driven Resources for the Public

To arm consumers with quality information at an easily understood reading level, we offer the following list of information sources.

Many resources are also available in Spanish, and all World Health Organization material is provided in Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese. The listing below also includes current news and crowdsourced recommendations from the Medical Library Association.

Local Resources

U.S. Government Resources

Global Resources

Health Organizations & News