News articles or blog posts containing “harmful” information about cancer treatment get more engagement on social media than articles or posts without such information, according to research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Researchers evaluated the accuracy of information about cancer treatment available on social media platforms in an attempt to determine whether users of these platforms are more or less likely to engage with harmful content.

The researchers searched articles posted on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, or Pinterest between January 2018 and December 2019.

The team identified 200 articles in total — the 50 most popular English-language articles for each of 4 cancer types: breast, prostate, colorectal, and lung.

Two panel members from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network reviewed the articles and quantified the degree of misinformation or harmful information the articles contained.

The review suggested that 65 articles (32.5%) contained misinformation. Examples of misinformation include misleading information, such as statistics or data not supporting the article’s conclusion (28.8%), and the strength of the evidence being mischaracterized (27.7%).

The reviewers also found that 61 articles (30.5%) contained information classified as harmful. The majority (76.9%) of articles containing misinformation contained harmful information, according to the reviewers.

Examples of harmful information included harmful inaction, which could lead to delays or failures to seek medical attention for treatable conditions (31.0%), and harmful action, such as potentially toxic effects of suggested interventions (17.0%).

The researchers compared engagement for factual articles (n=135) with articles that contained misinformation (n=65). The median number of engagements was 2300 for the articles with misinformation and 1600 for the factual articles, but this difference did not reach statistical significance (P =.05).

The researchers also compared harmful articles (n=61) to safe articles (n=139) and found significantly greater engagement with the harmful articles. The median number of engagements was 2300 with the harmful articles and 1500 with the safe articles (P =.007).

“Further research is needed to address who is engaging with cancer misinformation, its impact on scientific belief, trust, and decision-making, and the role of physician-patient communication in correcting misinformation,” the study authors wrote. “These findings could help lay the groundwork for future patient-specific tools and behavioral interventions to counter online cancer misinformation.”

Disclosures: This research was supported, in part, by the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Some study authors declared affiliations with biotech, pharmaceutical, and/or device companies. Please see the original reference for a full list of disclosures. 

Reference

Johnson SB, Parsons M, Dorff T, et al. Cancer misinformation and harmful information on Facebook and other social media: a brief report. J Natl Cancer Inst. Published online July 22, 2021. doi:10.1093/jnci/djab141