Health alert: Elderly at risk from social media misinformation

The internet has changed the way people seek and receive health information, and there has never been a more critical time to access accurate health information than during a global pandemic.

The rise of social media and online health communities has resulted in more people using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to provide or seek health information. It is estimated that 67 per cent of older Australians use social media, with almost a quarter using it at least once a day, and 17 per cent of all Australians trusting social media as their primary source of news.

While online sources can be a valuable way to communicate health information, there is a downside as it also allows erroneous information to flourish, particularly among the elderly who may not be so media savvy.

The spread of misinformation about significant health events poses a serious risk to the health and wellbeing of older Australians, especially if the information is not based on scientific evidence and is relied on to alter behaviour.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, there have been several instances of misinformation circulating on social media, including discouraging COVID-19 testing, unproven treatments, conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, and questions around the practice of hygiene that has created health risks for older Australians.

The dangers of rumour
A survey of more than 1000 Australians shows that 20 per cent of respondents believe the number of COVID-19 deaths has been exaggerated by the media and governments to scare the population, 13 per cent believe that the virus is not dangerous and is being used to force people to get vaccines and finally, 12 per cent blame 5G technology as the source of the virus.

Misinformation can spread unnecessary fear and panic. Importantly, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that misinformation and rumour surrounding a disease outbreak, especially COVID-19, can spread quicker than the virus and be just as dangerous.

Older Australians are vulnerable to epidemic diseases, and previous research suggests that this population experiences a significant level of stress during a pandemic with one coping mechanism being an increased reliance on social media for obtaining information.

One in four older Australians live alone. Research has shown that social networks are important for the wellbeing of older Australians and can reduce feelings of loneliness.

As more older Australians are staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19, it has meant that this section of the community is more isolated, meaning they may be more likely to seek health information advice online instead of from a trusted health professional such as their general practitioner.

A lasting impact
The reliance on social media for health information has highlighted several interrelated risks including the proliferation of misinformation and misguided beliefs about epidemic diseases such as COVID-19.

Although several studies have considered the positive effects of social media on older Australians, there is evidence that older Australians are more exposed to misinformation on social media. For example, one study shows that Americans over 65 were more likely to share fake news on Facebook compared to other generations.

Previous research has shown that health misinformation can have a lasting impact and is hard to correct. The spread of health misinformation has significantly increased because more older Australians have adopted social media.

Health misinformation may also lead to sub-optimal choices, including the avoidance of protective behaviours. The question here is, how can older Australians ensure the information they find online or via social media is credible?

How to spot fake news
1. Verify the information
It is usual for people who share information on social media (whether they are your friends or the administrators of a page), to mention the source of information. If they do not, ask them where they found the information and then you can verify it. It is important to be extra cautious about websites that belong to ideologically biased groups and news agencies, particularly those promoting conspiracy theories. You can also double-check the information found on social media with reputable sources such as international and government websites such as the WHO, Health Direct Australia, or with reputable organisations such as Beyond Blue.

2. Be critical
The internet is much bigger than social media. Deceiving users is harder in the ‘bigger internet’. A simple Google search can help identify people and their affiliation. It is very important to check if the information is based on credible research or a personal story or testimony. Not everyone experiences health problems in the same way and in the hierarchy of evidence, personal testimony is the lowest form of evidence and can be misleading if not balanced by scientific evidence.

Remember, if a credible piece of news is so significant that it can affect many people (for example, a vaccine is found for COVID-19), it should find its way into public and state-owned media. These agencies have robust standards and expert teams for checking the credibility of the news. Therefore, if you find a piece of breaking news on your Facebook feed and cannot see anything about that on a reputable news website or news bulletin, then be sceptical.

3. Exercise caution
Social media platforms use a mathematical algorithm that shows the same information to like-minded people (known as filter bubbles or online echo chambers). Therefore, there is a chance a piece of information is shown to people who think the same way you do. In this case, the risk is that information will not be verified by people outside your bubble. Hence, if you see some information and your family members with different demographics or viewpoints do not see that the same information, that could be a reason for you to rethink the trustworthiness of that information. Furthermore, you should exercise caution with sensationalised headings/claims and any information which is not backed up with evidence.

4. Ask an expert
Finally, remember that no-one can replace an expert, especially when it comes to your health. If in doubt, do not alter behaviour without advice from your health professional.

Do you feel it is getting harder to tell the difference between real news and fake news on social media? Do you have family members who share fake news? How do you handle it?

Written by Liv Gardiner

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