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"Fake News," Lies and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction

Importance of a Free Press

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The Bill of Rights, Amendment I of the U.S. Constitution

The press has a role as the "fourth estate" of societal power by acting as a watchdog for the public interest.

Need for Objective Reality

Trust in a shared objective reality is important to create a society with common ground.

University learning and research promote the value of empirical knowledge and the scientific method for understanding the world around us.

Keywords describing lack of trust in objective facts

  • Post-Truth
  • Truthiness
  • "Alternative Facts"

Trends and phenomena related to the impact of "fake news"

Some introductory sources are provided. The interested researcher is advised to conduct additional searches on these keywords and topics.

In Defense of Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Science in America. (2017). Redglass Pictures.

Propaganda and Psychological Information Warfare

Propaganda hinders effective democratic functioning and “results in the manipulation of the mob by the elite.”

Pratkanis, A. R., & Turner, M. E. (1996). Persuasion and democracy: Strategies for increasing deliberative participation and enacting social change. Journal of Social Issues, 52(1), 187–205. (MLibrary Access

As cited in DiFonzo, N. (2010). Propaganda. In The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (MLibrary Access)

Impact on Personal and Public Health

Personal Health

Incorrect or misleading medical information can adversely affect health and delay proper treatment. The impact of advertising and commercial search engine optimization techniques could promote search results to the top of the page from sources with economic interests rather than the most accurate and well-researched information.

As a starting point to further inquiry, here are some examples of discussions about “fake health news” and how poor quality information can impact personal health:

  • Real-life stories
    • Death sparks probe into China's Baidu. (2016, May 3). BBC News.
      Fake news advertisements promoted by Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, may have contributed to the death of a 21-year-old student. Wei Zexi, who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, pursued an experimental treatment that was featured at the top of his search results.
  • Consumer health information, health communication, and health literacy research
    • Beeken, R. J., Williams, K., Wardle, J., & Croker, H. (2016). “What about diet?” A qualitative study of cancer survivors’ views on diet and cancer and their sources of information. European Journal of Cancer Care, 25(5), 774–783.
      Discusses the difficulty of locating reliable health information online and the proliferation of poor reporting on dietary health claims.
    • Fu, L. Y., Zook, K., Spoehr-Labutta, Z., Hu, P., & Joseph, J. G. (2016). Search Engine Ranking, Quality, and Content of Web Pages That Are Critical Versus Noncritical of Human Papillomavirus Vaccine. Journal of Adolescent Health, 58(1), 33–39. (U-M Library Access; PubMed Central)
      This evaluation of web pages raises the issue of biased and low-quality health information online. Importantly, the authors consider the impact of search term choice on results.
    • Evaluating Health Information. MedLinePlus.
      This website from the National Library of Medicine provides consumers with tips for researching health topics.

Health Policy and Practice

Fake news not only affects individuals on a small scale, but on a larger scale as well. Public health and health policy decisions may be based on political and economic concerns rather than well-rounded research-based information. Health providers must also engage in critical and evidence-based evaluation of health information.

Some relevant discussions related to health policy and fake news include:

  • General effects of biased and incomplete information on public health
    • Speed, E., & Mannion, R. (2017). The Rise of Post-truth Populism in Pluralist Liberal Democracies: Challenges for Health Policy. International Journal of Health Policy and Management, 6(5), 249–251. (U-M Library Access; PubMed Central)
  • Challenges faced by health professionals to engagement in evidence-based practice:
    • Gambrill, E. D. (2012). Propaganda in the helping professions. New York: Oxford University Press. (U-M Library Access)