"Don't believe everything you read on the internet just because there's a picture with a quote next to it"
– Abraham Lincoln
We live in an information age. Now more than ever before we have ready access to an enormous quantity of data about health, treatments and research – from the internet, though the press, and on social media. But how do we know who to trust and understand what all this information is telling us? Simon from the MS Trust's Information Team has some tips to help you find health information you can trust.
Question what you read
Approach what you read with an open and questioning mind - neither immediately believing nor disbelieving what it tells you.
Ask yourself, who is telling me this and why? Does the author have an agenda? Are they trying to sell a product or an idea? Are they trying to make you think in a particular way?
For instance, advertisers will naturally want to make their product look good and appealing. While what they present won't necessarily be wrong, they may be selective in the information that they choose to give - emphasising the good points of the product and avoiding less convincing elements.
Some information, particularly in social media, may be plain wrong or deliberately misleading. This can be an intentional effect for malicious or mischievous ends. It can also happen unintentionally, where someone shares misunderstood information, which circulates and takes on a life of its own.
Let the story try to convince you of its argument and if something sounds surprising or unusual, double check the information. See if it has been covered in other sources and how it has been described there. If you think something may be fake news, sites such as FullFact and Snopes exist to fact-check news stories and social media content and are a good way to recognise hoaxes that are circulating.
Read the article
With so much information presented to us every day there is a tendency to only skim headlines or to read the opening sentence or two of a story. Whilst this can give a general idea of what's going on, important details may be missed.
News thrives on dramatic headlines about miracle cures or ground-breaking advances. Often important but less eyecatching details appear several paragraphs into the story. For instance, apparently exciting research may only be in the early stages of laboratory tests or animal studies, or the link between this research and an effect in humans may be theoretical and certainly hasn't been tested yet.
While the research will have scientific value, it will have no immediate effect for people with MS and may not justify the bold statement in the headline.
Check the date
A story can be true when first published but the facts may change later. Particularly online, information can remain available for some time after it was originally published. Old stories can be circulated - accidentally or maliciously - and cause concern or outrage about something that is no longer current or correct.
Check the source
Most of the information we read will have been filtered through other sources. A press release by the original researchers is picked up by a press agency, then by a newspaper or website and then may be shared and commented on in a blog or on social media. Each stage has the possibility of reinterpretation of the original material.
Consider the source that you are reading and whether you find it trustworthy. If it is from a source that you don't recognise, check how they have approached other topics to get an idea of their general approach to issues.
A website that focusses on alternative treatments may present information on medication and supplements in a different way to a site based on conventional medicine. A site that reports pharmaceutical news may have a different slant again. Although based on the same material, the elements that each source chooses to emphasise will colour the message within the article.
If the original source of the story is mentioned, try and find that to see how the coverage of the information matches with what was originally said.
As well as bias in the sources of information we need to be aware of our own biases. We all have our own opinions, prejudices, and areas of interest. There is a tendency to be drawn towards information that fits with these - known as confirmation bias. We like to read things that agree with our point of view and tend to avoid those that disagree.
To counter this, try and find the information from sources that give a more balanced or neutral view - acknowledging different sides of an argument. It won't mean that you change your mind on the topic, but it may help you see it in a wider context.
In a nutshell
Approach information with an open mind and ask yourself – do I trust this? Do I believe this? Can I check this?
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