A cabal of doctors are hiding the cure for cancer, berries are more effective than vaccines, and eating instant noodles can kill you: These are some of the claims from the internet’s most viral fake health news in 2019.
Health misinformation was a big deal this year. Facing pressure from lawmakers, doctors and health advocates, social media platforms made sweeping policy changes to ban or limit the spread of false health information that had gone unchecked for over a decade.
To get a sense of the landscape of fake health news this year, NBC News compiled a list of the most viral health misinformation and analyzed the data to see where it spread and how people engaged with it.
The most viral pieces of fake health news pushed far-reaching conspiracies between governments and medical communities and suggested ditching common medical treatment of life-threatening diseases for unproven cures. The top 50 articles garnered more than 12 million shares, comments and reactions this year, mostly on Facebook.
NBC News’ analysis was modeled after the methodology used in two recent studies: a 2018 study in which researchers from the Medical University of Gdansk measured the most shared stories containing health misinformation in Poland and a 2019 study in which Stanford researchers tracked the online activity surrounding the false idea that cannabis cures cancer.
NBC News used social media analysis tool BuzzSumo to search for keywords related to the most common diseases and causes of death in the U.S. The search was widened to include health topics routinely targeted by misinformation campaigns: vaccines, fluoride and natural cures. Only articles with more than 25,000 engagements were considered; 80 made up the final list.
Though researchers do suggest pPoor health journalism can misinform the public, this count does not include articles from legitimate news outlets that may reach false conclusions, cover flawed studies or inflate the findings of single studies, as is often the case with conflicting news articles concerning the health benefits of red wine, chocolate and coffee, for instance.
Cancer, unproven cures and vaccines
Eighty percent of people online are using the internet to search for health information. An NBC News analysis raises concerns for just what information people might have found in 2019.
The most viral health misinformation in 2019 was on the topics of cancer, unproven cures and vaccines, according to NBC’s review. In some cases, including on the topics of cancer and fluoride, fake health news dominated overall news about the issue.
The most engaged-with article about cancer in 2019, for example, pushed a stew of medical conspiracies, including that “Big Pharma,” a nebulous group that includes doctors and federal health organizations, is hiding a cure for cancer. The April article, “Cancer industry not looking for a cure; they’re too busy making money,” garnered 5.4 million engagements after being published on Natural News, a website owned and operated by Mike Adams, a dietary supplement purveyor who goes by the moniker “The Health Ranger.” The article found its widest audience on Facebook, where Natural News had nearly 3 million followers until it was banned in June for using “misleading or inaccurate information” to attract engagement, according to a statement Facebook sent Ars Technica.