White Coat, Black Art

The Snopes guide to spotting fake news

Alex Kasprak, science editor at Snopes, says fake health news thrives because "there's very little reward for accuracy and a lot of reward for sensationalism."

Fake health news stories find home on both right- and left-wing sites, says Alex Kasprak

Alex Kasprak, science editor at Snopes.com (Submitted by Chris Kasprak)

Originally published on Dec. 2, 2017.

The science editor of myth-busting website Snopes says fake health news stories succeed online because "there's very little reward for accuracy and a lot of reward for sensationalism."

Alex Kasprak told Dr. Brian Goldman of White Coat, Black Art that the most common clickbait put out by fake news sites involves headlines that are a variation on "this [product] is going to cause cancer." To legitimize that claim, the stories distort the findings of studies, or use very preliminary findings. 

Over time Kasprak has learned to spot the markers of fake health news stories: conspiracy theories, outright lies, and mistrust of 'big pharma' and the government. 

These kinds of stories want readers to believe that "the government is hiding pretty much anything and some higher power is preventing you from knowing [that] this random website you just heard about has all the answers," the editor said.

He cited websites such as HealthNews.net, Mercola.com and NaturalNews.net as main purveyors of fake health news.

Perhaps surprisingly, fake health news finds a home on both right-wing and left-wing sites.

"There's been a sort of weird merger of right-wing libertarianism and left-wing science denialism that have merged on the internet in a powerful way," he said.

Right-wing sites such as Alex Jones' Infowars are big on government conspiracies. They "merge well" with anti-vaccination websites and some natural health sites that question scientific fact and governments' motives. 

"You bring that into the picture — the sort of idea that the government is trying to shut down [a cure] — but there are these intrepid researchers who are trying to move it forward and bring the cure to you," Kasprak explained.

The "science denialism" that draws eyeballs to fake news health sites also makes people vulnerable to buying what the sites sometimes sell, including bogus cancer cures and supplements.

According to Kasprak, it's not difficult to use scientific fact to debunk a fake health story.

It's much harder, however, to stop that fake news story from becoming viral and continuing to get redistributed long after it's been proven to be fake.  

Still, he's not convinced that cracking down and trying to regulate fake news sites is the answer. 

In fact, Kasprak said that could make it worse, by feeding into the conspiracy theories. 

"If you regulate it in any way that has the appearance of censorship you get into trouble with that population that you are trying to reach."