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Is The American Public Swayed by Medical Misinformation?

KFF data showed that there’s still a lot of gray area in terms of whether the public believes widespread medical misinformation.

A whopping four in 10 Americans has heard medical misinformation and false claims about COVID-19, reproductive health, and gun violence, illustrating a difficult landscape for medical and public health professionals, a new KFF poll shows.

The good news is that very few respondents believed medical misinformation was definitively true; only 3 percent of respondents definitively believed the falsity that the COVID-19 vaccine could cause infertility, for example.

Still, there may be too much gray area, KFF indicated. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said certain misleading statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The “probably true” crowd is worrisome and liable to being swayed into believing medical misinformation, the poll’s administrators said.

“Most people aren’t true believers in the lies or the facts about health issues; they are in a muddled middle,” KFF President and CEO Drew Altman said in a press release. “The public’s uncertainty leaves them vulnerable to misinformation but is also the opportunity to combat it.”

Medical misinformation has a broad reach

Forty percent of poll respondents said they’ve at least heard one of the false claims the survey administrators presented to them, suggesting that medical misinformation has a broad reach. It can be hard to avoid hearing inaccurate statements about public health issues regarding COVID-19, reproductive health, and gun violence.

The number of respondents who believed these false claims was not insignificant, the survey administrators said. While some claims have gained little traction (the number of people believing the MMR shots cause autism is scant), there are some false claims that have gotten some buy-in.

Nearly one in five (18 percent) of respondents definitively believe the false claim that armed school police guards are proven to prevent school shootings. Over one in 10 respondents (13 percent) wrongly believe that those with firearms at home are less likely to be killed by a gun. A sizeable proportion (10 percent) wrongly believes the COVID-19 vaccine caused death in thousands of otherwise healthy people.

Notably, belief in medical misinformation falls across some demographic lines. People who self-identify as Democrats and who have a college education are less likely to believe COVID-19 misinformation. Younger women are more likely to believe misinformation about fertility issues following use of birth control, while those without a college degree are more likely to believe false claims about firearms.

But perhaps most startling is the number of respondents who believed, or can be convinced to believe, the false claims tested in the survey. While the number of respondents who knew an inaccurate claim was definitively false mostly outpaced the number who ardently believed it was true, there was a conspicuous population who weren’t entirely sure.

For example, 70 percent of respondents said that the claim that ivermectin is an effective COVID-19 treatment was either probably true (26 percent) or probably false (44 percent). These respondents could be swayed one way or another about these false claims. And since medical misinformation is rampant, it will be essential for medical and public health professionals to fine-tune their messaging efforts to combat misleading content.

Combatting medical misinformation on TV

Public health messaging to help distinguish fact from fiction needs to be led by doctors, the data showed, with nearly every respondent (94 percent) saying they trust doctors more than any other messenger. That trust is similar across party lines.

Trust is markedly less for public health entities like the CDC (67 percent), FDA (65 percent), and local public health agencies (64 percent). Meanwhile, trust is very low for both presidential administrations that have presided since the COVID-19 outbreak; 57 percent said they don’t trust the Biden Administration, and 61 percent said they don’t trust former President Donald Trump.

Messages combatting medical misinformation should feature doctors and, in some cases, public health entities and should be deployed on news stations, the data indicated. Around two-thirds (62 percent) of respondents said they consume their local news, while 56 percent said they watch network news on ABC, CBS, or NBC. Trust is also highest among both of those news sources, along with local newspapers, the data showed.

But not every TV news source is communicating accurate medical information, the survey showed. Respondents who said they regularly watch TV news stations like Newsmax, OANN, and Fox News were more likely to say they have heard one of the false medical statements presented in the survey and to believe that it was true.

Combatting medical misinformation on social media

Notably, the researchers found that social media is not an oft-used source of health information. To be clear, social media platforms are popular among poll respondents; 65 percent use YouTube weekly, while 63 percent use Facebook, 39 percent use Instagram, and 30 percent use TikTok.

But these platforms aren’t usually where consumers are looking to get their healthcare advice and news. Only 24 percent of respondents across all demographics said they use the platforms to learn more about healthcare.

What’s more, if social media users did hear healthcare information on these platforms, they likely wouldn’t believe it. YouTube came out as the most-trusted social media platform for healthcare information. Still, only 8 percent of respondents said they trusted it a lot, whereas 44 percent said they’d only trust it a little.

This mistrust in social media healthcare messaging may be well-founded; people who use social media to find healthcare information are more likely to have seen false messages and to believe them, the survey found. This indicates that social media sites can be breeding grounds for false medical claims.

There was a near consensus among respondents about the need to address misinformation; 86 percent agreed that all misinformation is a major problem, while 76 percent agreed that medical misinformation, in particular, is a major problem.

However, many respondents said leading figures are not doing enough to combat medical misinformation. Three-quarters said Congress must do more to address medical misinformation, while 70 percent said the same about the US news media, 69 percent about social media platforms, and 68 percent about President Joe Biden.

“While many Americans struggle to separate health information fact from fiction, our survey shows that credible sources of information, and messengers, represent an opportunity to break through and help increase trust,” Irving Washington, senior fellow for misinformation and trust at KFF, said in the survey’s press release. “We’ll continue to focus on this opportunity and what type of efforts can make a difference.”

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