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Cancer Misinformation and Harmful Information on Facebook and Other Social Media: A Brief Report

This content was current as of the date it was released. In science and medicine, information is constantly changing and may become out-of-date as new data emerge.

This abstract by Skyler B Johnson, MD et al published in JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, on July 22, 2021, reminds us of the dangers of information found on the internet.

Abstract

“There are few data on the quality of cancer treatment information available on social media. Here, we quantify the accuracy of cancer treatment information on social media and its potential for harm. Two cancer experts reviewed 50 of the most popular social media articles on each of the 4 most common cancers. The proportion of misinformation and potential for harm were reported for all 200 articles and their association with the number of social media engagements using a 2-sample Wilcoxon rank-sum test. All statistical tests were 2-sided. Of 200 total articles, 32.5% (n = 65) contained misinformation and 30.5% (n = 61) contained harmful information. Among articles containing misinformation, 76.9% (50 of 65) contained harmful information. The median number of engagements for articles with misinformation was greater than factual articles (median [interquartile range] = 2300 [1200-4700] vs 1600 [819-4700], P =.05). The median number of engagements for articles with harmful information was statistically significantly greater than safe articles (median [interquartile range] = 2300 [1400-4700] vs 1500 [810-4700], P =.007).”

What the authors are telling us is that much of the cancer information on social media concerning the four most common cancers (breast, lung, colon, and prostate), is wrong. In fact, about one-third of the 200 articles reviewed contained misinformation, and 30.5% contained harmful information. And these were the more popular articles!

One might reasonably speculate that the percentage of misinformation would be lower in a rare cancer such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia, where the social media buzz is usually restricted to the CLL community itself and not the general public (as is the case with the “big four cancers”). But that is just speculation.

What the CLL Society is saying is please make sure that the source of your information is reliable and preferably physician curated.

The full article is behind a paywall at  https://doi.org/10.1093/jnci/djab141if you want to dig deeper.

Stay strong. We are all in this together.

Brian Koffman MDCM (retired) MS Ed (he, him, his)
Co-Founder, Executive VP and Chief Medical Officer
CLL Society, Inc.