False medical news, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Prof. Ferenc Jakab, Professor of Virology at the University of Pécs; Vice-Dean for Science of the Faculty of Science; Scientific Director of the Szentágothai Research Centre; Head of the Department of Genetics and Molecular Biology and Leader of the Virological Research Group / BSL-4 Laboratory.
Why spreading false medical news is dangerous in your opinion?
False medical news can cause fear and panic in people, in many cases completely unfounded. What’s more, they provide misleading information that can be dangerous or even life-threatening to anyone. I am thinking, for example, of the completely unjustified fear of vaccinations, or even the exclusive treatment of serious cancers with unapproved treatments.
What measures in your opinion are needed to be taken in order to tackle false health news production?
In any case, strict official measures should be introduced. Identify the source of the fake news and take legal action. As such fake news can lead to very serious health, social, or even political problems, the broadcasters of such news should in any case face severe legal consequences. Another important thing I consider is the publication of expert, official statements in the appropriate forums. These can disprove the false news and confirm the real facts for lay people.
How could/should the public be educated about distinguishing between real and false health news, and how could awareness be raised on the misinformation spreading over social media platforms?
Again, I would focus solely on the expertise of professionals. I find it very important to regularly publish real news on official sites (even daily, weekly). In this case, over time, people will know which news are acceptable as real and which are not. People simply get used to who can expect accurate and real news. Social media is a much more difficult case, where fake news can spread quickly without control. I think the professionals have a big responsibility here too. A simple example: in the recent coronavirus epidemic, my virology research group has created a page on one of the social media portal to broadcast the latest, real and important events, news and results. Anyone who knows us knows that the knowledge gained here is not fake news and can safely share it to anyone. Once again, this is a difficult matter, but this is the most we can do.
What do you recommend to the public in general regarding the novel coronavirus?
Accept only the official news of authorized organizations and the statements of professionally competent persons and groups who can provide objective information on the subject. Most likely, the news from both national and international epidemiological and public health authorities and research institutes is real, published by professionals, so I think it can be believable without further ado. Avoid the news and rumors of “all-knowing” people who are often completely groundless.