A quack is someone who claims to have special knowledge in a field, typically medicine, but actually spouts pseudoscience and lies to obtain people's money for 'miracle cures.'
Sadly, quacks don't only prey on the vulnerable, they also erode people's trust in the health industry in general. The advent of the internet has allowed this to happen at a mass scale.
While big pharmaceutical companies do undeniably engage in shady practices and put their profits first, it is unwise to believe every conspiracy theory that comes one's way.
Here are some of the most shared fake health news stories that went viral in 2019, according to a study carried out by NBC News.
How the study was compiled
The analysis carried out by NBC News was compiled using the same methodology as two recent studies. One was a 2018 study that saw researchers from the Medical University of Gdansk measure the most shared stories including health misinformation in Poland.
The other was a 2019 study in which Stanford researchers tracked online misinformation about cannabis curing cancer.
The news outlet used BuzzSumo, a social media analysis tool, to search for keywords related to common diseases and causes of death in the U.S. The investigators then widened their search by including topics that are often linked to misinformation campaigns, such as vaccines, natural cures, and fluoride.
Any article with more than 25,000 engagements was considered. The final list consisted of 80 articles.
1. Fake: "Big pharma" withholding cure for cancer
The news article about cancer with the highest engagement in 2019 was a medical conspiracy piece. The article posited that "Big Pharma" is hiding a cure for cancer.
The article, titled "Cancer industry not looking for a cure; they're too busy making money," picked up 5.4 million engagements on Natural News, a website owned by a Mike Adams, who goes by the moniker "The Health Ranger."
As NBC News reports, the article gained most of its engagements from Facebook, where Natural News has almost 3 million followers until it was banned in June for using "misleading or inaccurate information to collect likes, followers, or shares," Facebook said in a statement to Ars Technica.
2. Fake: Marijuana and other miracle cures
The analysis highlights how viral articles promoting unproven cures for cancer make up roughly a third of the pieces on the list.
Of these alleged cures, marijuana was one of the most popular. Texts describing these 'miracle cures' were often presented alongside affiliate marketing links that allowed readers to buy them.
As per the report, one article, which generated over 800,000 engagements, falsely claimed that "ginger is 10,000x more effective at killing cancer than chemo."
Included in the list of natural unverified cures were elderberry, dates, thyme, garlic, jasmine, papaya leaf juice, limes, okra, and other herbal medicines, vegetables, and fruits. These were described, without any verified scientific backing, as being cures for cancer, diabetes, asthma, and the flu.
3. Fake: Vaccines cause harm and death
Despite the fact that vaccines are largely considered by the scientific and medical community to be safe, and necessary for preventing the spread of disease, there are well-funded anti-vaccination activists out there that are working hard to spread the idea that vaccines are dangerous and are responsible for countless deaths every year.
The majority of anti-vaccination ads on Facebook were funded by two groups, as The Washington Post reports. They have been able to successfully use Facebook ads to target the individuals they want to reach.
As per NBC News' analysis, the anti-vaccination creators that received the most engagement are Adams' Natural News; Children's Health Defense, an organization led by the anti-vaccine activist Robert Kennedy Jr., and Stop Mandatory Vaccination, a website led by a Larry Cook. Their content generated over a million engagements out of those on the NBC News list.
The Children's Health Defense articles, which went viral, misinterpret research in order to come to the conclusion that vaccines are dangerous for minors and for pregnant women.
Anti-vaccine 'fake news' causing decline in take-up and rise in measles, NHS chief says https://t.co/3MMF88R575— Sky News (@SkyNews) March 1, 2019
Stop Mandatory Vaccination's articles describe accounts from parents claiming their child's death was as a result of a vaccination. As NBC News writes, the claims from these articles have been debunked using medically-supported scientific explanations. The reasons behind the deaths included sudden infant death syndrome, pneumonia, and accidental asphyxiation.
Unfortunately, despite the scientific consensus on the safety of vaccines, according to Sky News, fewer people are taking vaccines for measles because of fake news.
Fighting fake news
While technology that helps fake news and misinformation, such as deepfakes, is becoming increasingly advanced, so are the methods for tackling fake news.
Advances in these technologies are needed more than ever: a study by health economists from Kingston University in London recently revealed that more than 60 percent of fake news online about healthcare issues is believed to be credible by readers.
While AI such as Open AI's Giant Language Model Test Room (GLTR) is showing itself to be worryingly accomplished at creating fake news stories, researchers at MIT recently created a new tool that can detect AI-written texts.
In September of last year, the BBC announced that it had teamed up with tech corporations in order to fight misinformation. The new plan sees the BBC team up with big tech companies including Google, Twitter, and Facebook, and includes an early warning system for use during elections or when people's lives are in danger.
Facebook, whose social media platform is where most misinformation is shared, claims it is working hard on methods for preventing the spread of misinformation.
"While we have made progress this year, we know there is more work to do. We hope to continue our partnership with health organizations to expand our work in this space," a spokesperson told NBC News in a statement.
Until more is done, people will continue to use the internet to spread misinformation, and in doing so, prey on the world's most vulnerable.