This is how hoaxes about health are generated from truthful information

The Internet is one of the main sources of consultation of health information and there is websites trusted by healthcare professionals. But the enormous volume of information - and disinformation - available on the web requires filtering the data with selective search strategies.

Researchers of Fundamentals and Methods of Psychology at the University of Deusto have studied the relationship between search strategies and wrong beliefs about health information. Depending on the results of their work, this misinformation may arise from the way the data is collected and skewed, even though the sources we go to or the information collected are correct.

Manuela Moreno-Fernandez, principal investigator and doctor in Psychology from the University of Deusto, explains to SINC that these erroneous beliefs can arise if we do not have a search strategy balanced: “We can collect information that overrepresents one event and underrepresents another. If this happens, we can acquire beliefs that are not entirely correct even though the information is true and reliable ”.

This bias can generate misinformation that is not based on the content of the data, whose responsibility would fall on who publishes it, but on a own conduct of the user and how they collect that information. “On the internet there is a risk of not collecting quality information from reliable or authorized sources; but an alternative risk is that, despite going to a reliable source, we may be collecting biased information, a small portion of reality that does not represent the whole ”, she details.

To demonstrate this, the researchers have worked with a kind of videogame in which participants had to find out if a fictitious drug caused an invented disease. With this task, they observed that when search strategies were affected by a confirmatory bias –The consultations were made to confirm a belief–, the participants in the experiment did find a relationship between the drug and the disease, despite the fact that this relationship did not exist.

In the study they have worked, according to Moreno-Fernández, with methodology laboratory experimental. "They are fictitious situations that allow us a lot of control of the situation and the variables that may intervene in the process," he says. The scientists suggest including for future studies situations typical of real-world searches, such as Google and the algorithm of your search engine, which can skew the results it offers the user.

"If we do not know what strategies search engines use, we do not know to what extent they are offering us data that is free of biases, limitations, partial information or that does not represent reality in a true way", warns the researcher.

The anti-vaccine phenomenon and its relation to this bias

The study emphasizes that these strategies studied in the laboratory can be very similar to those carried out by Internet users who support the anti-vaccine phenomenon. "They can support beliefs that are not based on reality and end up becoming real public health problems," Moreno-Fernández points out.

To illustrate, the doctor gives as an example parents who are very concerned about the side effects of vaccination, which "may tend to look for information that links the use of vaccines and these effects, even if they are looking at reliable sources." Thus, these people could end up overrepresenting the magnitude of these effects or the probability with which they may be encountered, while underrepresenting the benefits of getting vaccinated.

“We could have used another phenomenon, like COVID, but this is a well-known example. Everyone knows the problem of anti-vaccines and the consequences it has had on public health ”, he says.

The first impression on the internet is not the one that counts

To avoid falling into this misinformation generated by our own search strategy, Moreno-Fernández proposes, to begin with, become aware of our own limitations of searches. “Knowing what can lead us to error can help us to practice strategies that try to alleviate how human beings look by default. As a general rule, it might be helpful to know that normally the first impression that we have when searching online is limited ”, he highlights.

"If what we see is that people try to confirm the relationship between two events, we should propose strategies aimed at avoiding it, which compensate if there is a tendency to over-represent the information," he points out as the "first line" of defense against these possible hoaxes.

Although this work has studied the phenomenon in a very specific context of health information, the researcher believes that it can be extrapolated to other topics and with important effects: “It is sure that it can be applied to many other contexts, especially those with social relevance such as he climate change wave politics”.

As a last step, he recommends going to Sanitary professional, "Which is, after all, the specialist."


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