Fake news - a dental education perspective

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The destructive effects of fake news cause real life changes. It may have serious public health consequences.”  

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I heard the news today, oh boy. Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire…” In 1967, Lennon/McCartney were influenced by a news article. Is this an early example of “fake news”? Roll on to the present and "fake news” was named the 2017 word of the year.

Fake news is defined as false stories that masquerade as bona fide news stories. The reporting of a non-intentional situation that can be corrected is called misinformation. The act of deliberately producing/spreading material that is wrong in order to intentionally influence people’s opinion is disinformation. Whilst people are beginning to understand how fake news may influence their habits and opinions, the problem looks like it is here to stay.

Internet search engines are forever capturing information. Content is offered depending on its popularity. This activity may be automated by bots or trolls. Bots are programs designed to interact with computer systems without human intervention. Thousands of bots liking/sharing/retweeting a post, will make it disproportionately popular. Internet trolls are individuals driven by passion or money. Trolls write social posts to push a plan or an idea, which will be amplified by bots.

The destructive effects of fake news cause real life changes. It may have serious public health consequences. The main avenue that parents access health information is social media. Child vaccination is an area where disinformation influences decision making harming the health of families. Fake news stories hide behind a badge of authenticity.

Before Google, people talked to a health professional to discuss problems. Now everything is online. Fake news advertising statements often have the tag line “the home treatment that dentists don’t want you to know about”. There has been a rapid growth of dental health “fads” such as charcoal toothpaste. Products are recommended without the use of fluoride (itself wrongly considered a “poison”). These products are promoted over social media, which fosters a sense of authority about them. The lack of scientifically supported information around such items does not stop them from being used. Commercial companies are capitalising on it by producing their own brand of charcoal toothpaste with little evidence behind its use.

Universities are no longer knowledge holders. The proliferation of opinion-based statements influences people with an attractive message, online searches will easily result in the “discovery” of newer, faster, better and cheaper treatments. Homemade teeth whitening preparations, miraculous facial treatments and dental implant related success stories are some of the most commented stories. These items carry a quasi-scientific element making the proposed treatments look more reliable.

Why does fake news have the power to convince people?

Information is being pushed so fast that people just briefly check and repass the content without verifying it. Sensationalistic titles and “information overload” mislead the public and humans are influenced by confirmation bias, so fake news stories confirm people’s beliefs.

Is Fake news the dark side of evidence-based dentistry?

The European Journal of Oral Implantology described the problem involving studies fully or partially faked published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Such material is difficult to check and to quantify. With the persistence of fake news stories, will the public consider the information on websites or journals to be trustworthy? How can the public be sure when opposing fake news stories start circulating? Everyone is being affected in one way or another.

How do we tackle disinformation?

It is surprisingly simple, and you must encourage your students to:

  • Check the source. Develop a sceptical mind. Fake news stories aim to play on your emotions. Health-related content published by unreliable sources is shared more than evidenced-based information.
  • Carefully check the content.  Do not rely just on the title alone. Check the information against other reliable sources, 40% of the health content shared on social media is fake news.
  • Check the date of the publication.  Fake news is often a re-circulation of older material

What more can you do?

If you are involved in education encourage your students to spot fake news. It will enable them to become better informed. Stay focused. People will react to the same news according to their own beliefs. The purportedly fixed concepts are loosening their hold even recognized scientific journals publish polarised research. The best way to deal with fake news is to empower individuals to create an environment of “real news”.

Fake news is a global issue. However, it is up to each of us to tackle the problem.

Funded by EU-Horizon2020/MSCA(748609).

This is adapted with permission from an article that was published in the British Dental Journal ‘Fake news and dental education’ British Dental Journal volume 226, pages 397–399 (2019) in a new article published on the university website. 

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