During a White House press conference in 2021, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory on the dangers of health misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. What makes this advisory unique? Usually, these advisories are reserved for serious public health concerns that relate to what we eat, drink, or smoke.
But misinformation at this scale isn’t new. Prior to COVID-19, the United States had another major public health crisis—the opioid epidemic. And at the center was Purdue Pharma, a now-infamous private pharmaceutical company that created OxyContin.
The company argued that OxyContin wasn’t addictive at all, claiming that less than one percent of users developed a “tolerance” issue when in fact it was widely known that drugs like OxyContin were highly addictive. Purdue Pharma went to great lengths to disburse false information, including a multi-facted marketing campaign designed to alter the medical community’s opinions about the risks.
The result of this misinformation? Hundreds of thousands of deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars in economic fallout, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Purdue Pharma case is one of the best examples of how health and medical misinformation can literally kill people and ruin lives.
Why Content Marketers Should Beware of Medical Misinformation
The opioid crisis illustrates how misinformation and disinformation can ignite a public health catastrophe. But what kinds of dangers, exactly, do they pose for healthcare providers and content marketers? For starters, promoting misinformation and disinformation in a marketing campaign can range from losing credibility to, in extreme cases, financial and potentially legal liability.
As health-related misinformation continues to explode and consumer trust in institutions plummets, lawmakers are scrambling to find solutions and create accountability. For example, last year, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ben Luján introduced the Health Misinformation Act of 2021, which seeks to hold companies like Facebook and YouTube accountable for allowing health misinformation to spread. The piece of legislation amends Section 230, which has primarily protected social media and digital platforms from liability over the content their users choose to post and share.
Regulators are also cracking down on physicians and healthcare professionals who share misinformation and disinformation online. Last year, the Federation of State Medical Boards released a statement warning that physicians and healthcare professionals posting misinformation and disinformation online could risk losing their licenses. In addition, marketers who directly represent doctors and healthcare providers could expose their clients to censure (or worse) by sharing fake news or poorly vetted medical content on their behalf.
While internet giants like Facebook and Google have been reticent to take responsibility for the content their users post, pressure from lawmakers and consumers is forcing them to evolve. In late 2021, Google announced it would prohibit ads that contained climate change misinformation and disinformation. Interestingly enough, Google was actually motivated to take the step against climate misinformation on their ad platform by customer complaints. Not surprisingly, publishers and marketers take issue with misleading or false ads running alongside their content because fake news and deceptive content make everyone look bad.
Even if you share misinformation unwittingly by quoting a fake scientific study, it can erode consumer trust and tarnish brand authority. According to data from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, consumer trust is at an all-time low across all information platforms, including traditional news media, social media, search engines, and owned media. To make matters worse, consumers believe nearly everyone purposely shares misinformation and misleading content, from governments to business organizations.
At its heart, successful content marketing is about creating and maintaining excellent customer relationships. Sharing dubious data or fake news in an ad, blog, or social media post could sabotage a content marketer’s ability to run campaigns across ad networks effectively and social media platforms in the future. If a brand’s relationship with its customers becomes fraught with mistrust, even the best campaigns will rely on life support.
How to Get the Facts Straight in the Digital Age
Although we now have access to an endless amount of information on demand, ensuring it’s accurate is challenging due to the sheer volume and insidiousness of misinformation and misrepresentation. Separating the facts from the misinformation can feel like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Still, there are a few steps that marketers and brands can take to ensure that health-related content is accurate and meets ethical guidelines.
1. Understand the difference between misinformation and disinformation.
Remember that everything comes down to intent—what you knew and when you knew it. Misinformation is when someone is unaware that the information is flawed or misleading. Disinformation involves deliberately sharing something inaccurate or deceptive to sway opinion, create confusion, or sell a product or service under false pretenses.
2. Think before you link.
Are you linking to an actual study from the American Medical Association or The New England Journal of Medicine? Or are you quoting an article quoting a tweet quoting a meme?
Even if you reference information from a website or publication you trust, going directly to the source of the study or data is always preferable to quoting even the most reliable secondary source. Backlinks are great for SEO purposes, but they can make citations murky.
3. Get on the phone.
Of course, content marketing isn’t journalism. However, old-school reporting skills and methods like tracking down leads and interviewing sources will make content more potent and authoritative, especially for quotes and direct attributions to a subject matter expert.
As a bonus, making a few calls and talking directly to sources is a great way to build a network of subject matter experts to draw on in the future.
4. Be your own fact-checker.
Digital content is like the online equivalent of playing the old telephone game. The story may have started with a grain of truth, but a few iterations are all it takes for disinformation to take on a life of its own.
Like reporters, many content writers have “beats,” making it easy to rely on outdated and inaccurate sources and information.
5. Remember that even good information and data are subject to change.
Even the world’s leading scientists, doctors, and public health experts know what they know—until they know even more. Whether it’s the field of epidemiology, the study of how addiction works, and everything in between, the health and medical field is constantly evolving and changing.
Unlike in politics, course-correcting isn’t “flip-flopping” in science and health—it’s part of the process. Therefore, even evergreen health content needs constant updating and monitoring to ensure accuracy, help, and meeting ethical guidelines and standards. Whenever possible, try to use source material that’s no more than two to three years old.
As the Purdue Pharma example shows, health misinformation can be the undoing of enterprises worth billions of dollars, regardless of their stated intentions. But with a few simple practices and safeguards, content marketers can help protect the reputation of the healthcare brands they represent and strengthen trust with the consumer.