Misinformation online helps fuel measles outbreak, experts say

By Ashley Welch

/ CBS News

Steer clear of medical misinformation online

Tech giants are being criticized for the role false medical information spread online may have played in the measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest. There have now been at least 61 confirmed cases of the highly contagious virus in Clark County, Washington, just across the river from Portland, Oregon.

Of the confirmed cases, almost 90 percent involved people who were not immunized. The majority of those sickened are children between the ages of 1 and 10.

Last week Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., sent a letter to Google and Facebook asking how the companies manage posts that spread anti-vaccination messages. Schiff said he is "deeply concerned about declining vaccination rates" and asked for additional steps "to address this growing problem."

Google, which owns YouTube, said it is working on providing more context for certain search queries around health information, such as providing links to third-party sources like Encyclopedia Brittanica.

In a statement to CBS News, Facebook said, "We've taken steps to reduce the distribution of health-related misinformation on Facebook, but we know we have more to do. We're currently working on additional changes that we'll be announcing soon."

Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of Wired, explains that a big factor in the spread of medical misinformation is that feelings tend to spread more quickly than facts.

"Social networks are based on emotion. So content that makes us feel emotional, whether it's fear [or] whether it's uncertainty, that spreads really quickly," he told "CBS This Morning." "So as they say, a lie get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on."

CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula says she is seeing more and more patients who are skeptical about medical guidelines, based on information they've found on in internet.

"They go to 'Dr. Google' to get a second opinion. They go there because it's easy, they're not going to have any judgment, they don't have to pay a co-pay and then they don't have to make a time for an appointment," she said. "The issue is that we see this being a very — being widespread, not just relating to vaccines but medications like statins, supplements that promote wellness, weight loss, cancer treatments that are alternative."

While experts say patients should do their part by talking to their doctors about their health concerns, tech companies should also be more responsible in curbing the spread of medical misinformation.

"I think one of the important lessons is that 'Dr. Google' can get better," Thompson said. "The engineers can make the internet a source of better information by changing the way the algorithms work."

Narula recommends patients get reliable medical news from government sites like the CDC or NIH, as well as medical associations like the American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association, and reputable universities.

People can also be trained to analyze what they're reading.

"For example, look and see who the author is," Narula said. "Was this published in a peer-reviewed journal? Who funded this
study? Who's benefiting from it? Was it one study where you may not want to base your decisions on, or on was it multiple studies? How many subjects were studied, 100 or 500,000? What kind of trial? An observational study, [which is] not the best, or randomized control trial, [which is] much better to make your decisions on."

First published on February 18, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ashley Welch

Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com

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