Docs no Better Than Patients at Ferreting Out Fake Coronavirus News

But there’s fake and there’s FAKE.

What would you say if I told you that a new study shows that individuals with acute kidney injury due to COVID-19 recover faster than those with AKI due to other causes? What if I told you that a new study shows that a quartz crystal placed on your bedside table reduces transmission of COVID-19 by 50%?

These statements are both false, by the way, but I hope you realize they are not false in quite the same way. There is something blatantly, aggressively false about the latter, whereas the former seems plausible, even though I basically flipped the result of a study my group just published.

But a new study, appearing in PLOS One, doesn’t seem to get that distinction as they try to examine how good people are at detecting fake coronavirus stories. The big headline? That healthcare providers are really no better at picking out fake Coronavirus stories from real ones.

False coronavirus news is a legitimate public health concern, with some notably tragic deaths like this man who died from taking chloroquine from his fish tank cleaner, or the 700 people in Iran who died from methanol toxicity.

Yes, fake news can kill. But I think those dramatic stories fail to capture the insidious nature of fake news — how it gradually erodes our very concept of reality — how it leaves us unsure of who we can trust, if anyone. There is simply so much stuff out there, that you can almost always find something to support your belief system, even if your belief happens to be false.

So figuring out how people can ferret out real news from fake news is of critical importance. Which is why I was so excited to see this study.

Briefly, researchers from Germany enrolled 2,077 subjects, most of whom were university students but there were also 213 healthcare professionals. Half of those were doctors.

The participants were presented, at random, with eight news stories. Half were fake, and half were true — but — and this is critical — the fake news stories were just sort of flips of the real news stories.

For example, one real news story was headlined “Men are more vulnerable to coronavirus due to an enzyme” — referencing our higher levels of ACE2. The fake version of the story read “Women are more vulnerable to coronavirus due to an enzyme”.

So — ok — I get it — technically, the latter is false. But like — how are you supposed to figure it out? The only thing to clue you in, really, is your prior knowledge of COVID epidemiology. Indeed, when the researchers analyzed that particular case — familiarity with the true news story was the #1 predictor of whether you could identify if you were seeing the false version. This was true for the vast majority of fake news stories presented.

This misses the point for me. The problem of fake coronavirus news is not that news outlets take real stories and add a few “nots” or change men to women, it’s that they present a reality that is inconsistent with actual reality. Like stories about mask wearing leading to CO2 toxicity, or like COVID-19 being caused by cell towers and not SARS-CoV-2.

And honestly, it’s not really the news outlets that are the worst at this. It’s social media. I mean, there is crazy crazy stuff out there. Here’s a Wyoming state legislator stating that the death rate from coronavirus vaccines is higher than the death rate from coronavirus.

This is not true. And there are tons more examples like this but honestly, I don’t think I should give them the airtime.

It’s recognizing this stuff — hype, spin, motivated reasoning, appeals to emeotion — that we need people to learn. Not simple fact-checking.

But the PLOS paper does remind me of something important. If we can’t agree on a baseline set of facts, all is lost. Like — interpretation of facts is one thing, we can have disagreements about that. My concern is that, in today’s media environment — the echo-chamber, we can’t even agree on a basic set of facts to begin to form policy around. It is completely possible to live in a world where you are consistently surrounded by messaging that COVID is not real. At least until it hits a member of your family. To make it out of this, we need to find a way to pop the bubbles.

A version of this commentary first appeared on

Writing about medicine, science, statistics, and the abuses thereof. Commentator at Medscape. Associate Professor of Medicine at Yale University.

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