1 in 3 cancer articles on social media contain harmful misinformation

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Finding misinformation on social media is not likely to shock many people. Wild claims and conspiracy theories pop up on various platforms daily, with the most recent cases involving the coronavirus pandemic and its vaccines. Now, unfortunately, a new study reveals that cancer research is not immune to this misinformation campaign either. In fact, researchers find one out of every three popular cancer treatment articles on social media is providing misleading information.

Dr. Skyler Johnson of the Huntsman Cancer Institute adds the vast majority of these inaccurate reports are also supporting treatment approaches which could harm patients. Johnson gathered a team of medical experts to review the claims in 200 of the most popular posts about cancer treatments on social media. Those articles focused on breast, prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers.

Their findings reveal 33 percent contain misinformation. From that group, 77 percent contain claims that could negatively influence a patient’s decisions on how to treat the disease.

“We found misinformation is clearly prevalent in cancer articles on social media, and the vast majority of those pieces contain harmful information,” Dr. Johnson says in a media release.

“Having cancer is a unique and vulnerable situation. Patients are dealing with a new disease. They want to feel in control over their own health and do everything possible to maintain hope. They experience a deluge of new information as they are diagnosed, including through social media. Some patients seek out information, and some information is shared with patients by well-intentioned family and friends.”

Communicating with your doctor is key

Johnson says physicians need to stay in constant contact with their patients during cancer treatments. The researcher adds that his practice informs patients that they may find misinformation about their cancer online. Dr. Johnson recommends that cancer patients talk to their doctors about the things they read on social media before acting.

“We need to address these issues head on,” Johnson concludes. “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 information. My goal is to help answer their questions, and provide cancer patients with accurate information that will give them the best chance for the best outcome.”

The findings appear in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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