The dangers of fake news and its impact on global health came under the spotlight at our annual Teddy Chester lecture.
Guest speaker Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene, was blunt in his appraisal of the damage that fake news can cause well beyond the political arena. “To put it bluntly fake news can kill, as we saw with the spread of fake news and disinformation during the recent ebola epidemic in West Africa.”
Prof McKee, who has been working in health and health policy for 30 years, recently conducted with colleagues a systematic review of the role of fake news in health, during which he identified some definitions around the whole subject.
"Misinformation is where false or misleading information is provided but there is no intent. Disinformation is where information is purposefully created to deceive people. And fake news is when false information is fabricated and spread in a way that explicitly mimics news content."
He said fake news undermined trust in public authorities when it comes to health. “Sometimes fake news is spread precisely to do that, by people who have no interest in health at all. There has always been an overlap between politics and public health, but what we are seeing now is how the attack on some public health messaging is being used to erode trust in government as a political weapon.”
Prof McKee began his lecture by exploring the origins of fake news, before looking at what it means for health prevention in areas such as vaccinations, infectious diseases and fluoridation.
“Why do such stories spread so quickly, who is spreading them, and what is their motivation? And how can we as health professionals avoid the risk of ‘backfire’, namely where you say something and it has exactly the opposite effect from the intent?”
He added that the smartphone revolution also created huge challenges, and believed the tech giants could be doing more. “With smartphones spreading across the world it means that not only can people get access to information or misinformation, or disinformation, from anywhere, but they can also generate it and produce it themselves, and these things can then go viral.
"The global technology giants can do a lot more than they do to help us with traceability, to find out where things are coming from. Unfortunately they haven’t yet done that, but they have the means to do that. They shape what we see anyway."
In terms of solving the problem of fake news, Prof McKee said as a society we need to also learn from advances in cognitive psychology. "We need to understand the biases that people have and how to overcome them. It is not just a matter of telling people, that often has the opposite effect from what we want."
He admitted that if he had given a lecture on fake news even a few years ago it would have been met with “complete incomprehension”.
"Yet in the space of a few years we have seen this term achieving widespread usage. Here in the UK we have also had a parliamentary inquiry which concluded that the term fake news is bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, with the term taking on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader."
*Our annual Teddy Chester lecture is in memory of the first professor of social administration at the University of Manchester. He was also involved in founding and leading the NHS Graduate Training Scheme, and in founding Manchester Business School itself.