One in Three Cancer Articles On Social Media Has Wrong Info

Nick Mulcahy

July 29, 2021

One in three of the most popular news and feature articles on social media about the treatment of the four leading cancers in the United States contain misinformation, and the majority of those have the potential to harm patients, according to a new analysis.

Of the 200 most popular articles (50 each for prostate, lung, breast, and colorectal cancer), about a third (32.5%, n = 65) contained misinformation.

Among these articles containing misinformation, 76.9% (50/65) contained harmful information.

"The internet is a leading source of health misinformation," the study authors comment. This is "particularly true for social media, where false information spreads faster and more broadly than fact-checked information," they say, citing other research.

"We need to address these issues head on," said lead author Skyler Johnson, MD, of the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.

Dr Skyler Johnson

"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," he said in a statement. "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 study was published online July 22 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The study period ran from 2018-2019, and looked at articles posted on social media platforms Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, or Pinterest. Popularity was measured by engagement with readers, such as upvotes, comments, reactions, and shares.

Some of the articles came from long-established news entities such as CBS News, The New York Times, and medical journals, while others came from fleeting crowdfunding webpages and fledging nontraditional news sites.

One example of popular and harmful misinformation highlighted by Johnson to Medscape Medical News was entitled "44-Year-Old Mother Claims CBD Oil Cured Her of Breast Cancer within 5 Months." Posted on in February 2018, the article is tagged as "opinion" by the publisher and in turn links to another news story about the same woman in the UK's Daily Mail newspaper.

The ideas and claims in such articles can be very influential, suggested Jennifer Lycette, MD, in a recent Medscape Oncology blog post.

"After 18 years as a cancer doctor, it sadly doesn't come as a surprise anymore when a patient declines treatment recommendations and instead opts for 'alternative' treatment," she writes.

Sometimes, misinformation is not sensational but is still effective via clever wording and presentation, observes Brian Southwell, PhD, of Duke University, who has studied patients and misinformation.

"It isn't the falsehood that is somehow magically attractive, per se, but the way that misinformation is often framed that can make it attractive," he tells Medscape Medical News.

Southwell recommends that clinicians be proactive about medical misinformation.

"Rather than expect patients to raise concerns without prompting, health care providers should invite conversations about potential misinformation with their patients," he wrote in a recent essay in the American Journal of Public Health.

In short, ask patients what they know about the treatment of their cancer, he suggests.

"Patients don't typically know that the misinformation they are encountering is misinformation," says Southwell. "Approaching patients with compassion and empathy is a good first step."

Study Details

For the study reported by Johnson et al, two National Comprehensive Cancer Network panel members were selected as content experts for each of the four cancers and were tasked with reviewing the primary medical claims in each article. The experts then completed a set of ratings to arrive at the proportion of misinformation and potential for harm in each article.

Of the 200 articles, 41.5% were from nontraditional news (digital only), 37.5% were from traditional news (online versions of print and/or broadcast media), 17% from medical journals, 3% from a crowd-funding site, and 1% from personal blogs.

This expert review concluded that nearly one third of the articles contained misinformation, as noted above. The misinformation was described as misleading (title not supported by text or statistics/data do not support conclusion, 28.8%), strength of the evidence mischaracterized (weak evidence portrayed as strong or vice versa, 27.7%) and unproven therapies (not studied or insufficient evidence, 26.7%).

Notably, the median number of engagements, such as likes on Twitter, for articles with misinformation was greater than factual articles (median, 2300 vs 1600; P = .05).

In total, 30.5% of all 200 articles contained harmful information. This was described as harmful inaction (could lead to delay or not seeking medical attention for treatable/curable condition, 31.0%), economic harm (out-of-pocket financial costs associated with treatment/travel, 27.7%), harmful action (potentially toxic effects of the suggested test/treatment, 17.0%), and harmful interactions (known/unknown medical interactions with curative therapies, 16.2%).

The median number of engagements for articles with harmful information was statistically significantly greater than articles with correct information (median, 2300 vs 1500; P = .007).

A limitation of the study is that it only included the most popular English language cancer articles.

This study was funded, in part, by the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Johnson, Lycette, and Southwell have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Some study authors have ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

J Natl Cancer Inst. 2021;djab141. Abstract

Nick Mulcahy is an award-winning senior journalist for Medscape, focusing on oncology, and can be reached at and on Twitter: @MulcahyNick.

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