Did you hear that a recent study shows that teenagers are actually growing horns, and that prolific smartphone use is to blame?
The Washington Post wrote about it on June 20, and the story was soon aggregated across traditional, online, and social media.
50% of young people are ‘growing horns’ because of phones, Pop Buzz said. Horns are growing on young people’s skulls; researchers blame phone use, NOLA.com said. Screen time found to cause ‘head horns’, ABC News went with.
There was just one problem. The story—and this may come as a surprise—wasn’t true.
These dozens of aggregations were all based on a year-old study from Australia which referenced “bone growths” in the skeletons of some number of teenagers. The study didn’t reference “horns,” nor did it draw causation between the growths and cell phone use.
The phrase “fake news” is thrown around a lot these days, often by President Trump and other politicians, and way too often it’s used to mean “a story that’s completely true, but that paints me personally in a poor light.”
But in real life, there’s perhaps no topic that lends itself more to fake news than medicine, health, and the reporting of scientific studies.
There are many ways media outlets screw this up. They report on “medical breakthroughs” that are far from operational or proven (a study last year found that half of media reports about such breakthroughs fail to pan out). They fail to distinguish between legitimate, peer-reviewed studies and ones that are considerably less scientific.
And, as is the case with the devilish effects of smartphone use, they exaggerate and sensationalize uninteresting, incomplete, or flawed scientific findings.
An example to illustrate is the wonderful Twitter account called @justsaysinmice, which calls out media outlets for reporting the results of medical studies, while omitting that the conclusions were drawn “in mice,” and not in humans.
The explanation for this is simply that a lot of media content creation these days is done by aggregators, who aren’t doing their own original reporting and instead are tasked with “writing up” either a press release or a previous news report.
Newsroom aggregators are people with a tough job who aren’t paid nearly enough money to do it. But they also, almost to a man, are without scientific background or training, or the innate knowledge to tell a highly questionable story from a true one.
So, if a press release comes in from a local university that they’ve made a significant breakthrough in, say, the fight against Parkinson’s, the aggregator isn’t going to be tasked with spending two hours looking at the study, determining whether it’s legitimate, and whether it’s done in mice or humans. The aggregator is going to have five minutes to write up the story, come up with a pithy headline that pops on Facebook, and pray for decent web traffic.
Under this model where—let’s be honest—only a handful of news outlets still have full-time health and science reporters, the general public isn’t going to get the analysis and accurate health information that they deserve. And that’s before anti-vaccine propaganda, and other actively malevolent pseudoscience enters the picture.
Some of the more insidious “fake news” out there has nothing to do with political partisanship. It’s simply news outlets not knowing the difference between true and false technical information. Sometimes it’s obvious—look around, and notice that none of the teenagers you know have grown horns—but other times it takes a lot more skepticism on the part of the reader than what we can practically expect.