Research shows that the majority of Americans—81%—are health-care information seekers, and that more than three-quarters of Americans get that information online. Unfortunately, much of that online information is inaccurate and could cause harm, according to a review of the most popular articles on social media on each of the four most common cancers. The study found that one-third of these articles contain misinformation, with the majority—77%—containing harmful information that could lead to delays in seeking treatment among patients. The study also found that articles containing misinformation attracted more attention and reader engagement than articles with evidence-based information. The study by Johnson et al was published in JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
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The study authors used BuzzSumo, a web-scraping software program, to search for the most popular English-language articles containing relevant keywords for the four most common cancers—breast, prostate, lung, and colorectal. Two cancer experts reviewed the top 50 articles from each cancer type representing 200 unique articles posted on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, or Pinterest between January 2018 and December 2019. The vast majority of reader engagements were on Facebook and analyzed separately.
The proportion of misinformation and potential for harm were reported for all 200 articles, and their association with the number of social media engagements using a two-sample Wilcox on rank-sum (Mann-Whitney) test. Statistical analyses were performed using Stata, version 16.1. All statistical tests were two-sided, and P less than .05 was considered statistically significant.
The study authors found that of the 200 articles reviewed, 32.5% (n = 65) contained misinformation and 30.5% (n = 61) contained harmful information. Among articles containing misinformation, 76.9% (50 of 65) contained harmful information. The median number of engagements for articles with misinformation was greater than factual articles (median [IQR] = 2,300 [1,200–4,700] vs 1,600 [819–4,700], P = .05). The median number of engagements for articles with harmful information was statistically significantly greater than safe articles (median [IQR] = 2,300 [1,400–4,700] vs 1,500 [810–4,700], P = .007).
“Further research is needed to address who is engaging with cancer misinformation, its impact on scientific belief, trust, and decision-making, and the role of physician-patient communication in correcting misinformation. These findings could help lay the groundwork for future patient-specific tools and behavioral interventions to counter online cancer misinformation,” concluded the study authors.
“We need to address these issues head-on,” said lead study author Skyler B. Johnson, MD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute, in a statement. “As a medical community, we can’t ignore the problem of cancer misinformation on social media or ask our patients to ignore it. We must empathize with our patients and help them when they encounter this type of misinformation. My goal is to help answer their questions and provide patients with accurate information that will give them the best chance for the best outcome.”
Disclosure: Funding for this study was provided in part by the Huntsman Cancer Institute. For full disclosures of the study authors, visit academic.oup.com/jnci.The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.