Misinformation is nothing new, but our 24-hour news cycle and social media have made things worse than ever. Falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than the truth, according to one study.

Some basic tips: Never share anything if you’ve only read the headline. And if you’re unsure if an article is accurate, don’t share it. Here’s what else to know about health misinformation.

Shaky science behind the plug

screenshot of Facebook post from Mark Hyman, MD.

Health gurus love to tout studies that support their beliefs, even if the evidence is lackluster...or comes from research in rats.

Take functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, who sells detox kits, protein powders, and supplements in addition to books about his version of a low-carb diet.

“A recent review found that for menopausal women, fish oil supplementation was shown to have an anti-anxiety effect,” wrote Hyman in a July Facebook post.


Only one trial included in the review looked at whether fish oil supplements containing DHA and EPA (the key long-chain omega-3 fats) curb anxiety in women going through menopause.

Researchers randomly assigned 355 women to take 1.8 grams (1,800 milligrams) of fish oil or a placebo every day. After 12 weeks, scores on an anxiety questionnaire were no better in the fish oil takers than in the placebo takers.

(The study was designed to look at the effect of fish oil on hot flashes, so if the researchers wanted to confirm that fish oil doesn’t work for anxiety, they’d need a new study.)

The review did include three studies that tested omega-3s on anxiety in rats that had their ovaries removed to mimic the hormonal changes of menopause. In two of the studies, omega-3 fats lowered anxiety compared to a placebo. In the third, both fish oil and lard did, suggesting that any fat might have helped the rats.

Those are pretty iffy results to justify shelling out money on omega-3 supplements (which Hyman sells on his website).

According to Hyman’s Facebook post, the review also found that omega-3s “helped to maintain inflammatory balance along with anti-depressant and neuroprotective activities, and had neuroimmune-modulating actions.”

In fact, the review’s findings on those outcomes were about as unimpressive as its anxiety results.

What’s more, large randomized trials that have tested the mood-boosting potential of omega-3 fats—though not specifically in menopausal women—have come up empty.

For example, researchers randomly assigned 18,353 adults (who hadn’t experienced depression in the past two years) to take 1 gram of fish oil or a placebo every day. After five years, mood scores were no different, and the risk of depression was slightly higher in the fish oil takers.

We’re betting those results never turn up on Hyman’s Facebook page.

Ad or article?

picture of hand holding gummies with misleading headline
Clicking on this...
advertisement for CBD gummy
...takes you to this.

With virtually every search, click, or scroll, you’re bound to be bombarded with ads proclaiming that scientists are “stunned” by a new product, promising to share the “truth behind female hair loss,” luring you in to try a new supplement that “has Americans dropping pounds,” or delivering other “Genius!” tips.

The catch: Advertisers are making those ads harder to distinguish from actual news articles.

It’s called native advertising.

“Native advertising is the concept of creating ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer feels the ad belongs there,” says Taboola, a platform used by websites to fill their ad space.

For example, a recent ad on CNN’s website reported that “Doctors baffled: simple tip relieves years of joint pain and arthritis.”

Click on the link, and you’ll be taken to a webpage that says “Advertorial” in small type at the top of the page. (Other ads may say “advertisement” or “sponsored.”)

Miss that, and you might mistake the story for a legit news article. After all, the author is from the “Associated Health Press,” which sounds remarkably like the reputable Associated Press.

Breaking news? Hardly. It’s just a long-winded ad for a CBD gummy. (In case you’re interested, there’s no good evidence that CBD relieves joint pain.)

Stretching the truth

headline about a type pf cheese being "good for you" with picture of a wedge of cheese

The cheese that’s “actually good for you” is Jarlsberg, reported the New York Post in August.

That’s because Jarlsberg contains vitamin K2, explained the Post. Vitamin K is needed for osteocalcin (a protein that is essential for bone formation) to bind to the calcium in bone.

Trials testing vitamin K1 for bone density came up empty. What about K2?

In early studies, huge doses (45,000 micrograms a day) lowered the risk of fractures. But some of those trials were retracted when the lead author admitted that he had fabricated the data. Later studies (which received industry funding) using 180 to 375 mcg a day of K2 reported little to no effect on bone density. (The daily value for all forms of vitamin K combined is 120 mcg.)

What about Jarlsberg? The recent study cited by the Post randomly assigned 66 young women to eat 2 oz. of Jarlsberg or Camembert cheese every day. After six weeks, osteocalcin increased slightly more in the Jarlsberg eaters than in the Camembert eaters.

But bone density matters more than osteocalcin, and the study didn’t last long enough to look at bone density. And the Post didn’t disclose that the study was partly funded by the makers of Jarlsberg.

Minor details, especially when you can write an exaggerated headline likely to get clicks...and shares.


headline for supplement to help with sleep and picture of a man sleeping in a bed

“I’ve tried everything from nightly sleep aids like melatonin and hemp CBD to mindful practices like breathwork and counting exercises,” laments Edwin Csukas, a mindbodygreen.com contributor. “None of it has solved my problem.”

Enter Sleep Support+ (conveniently sold by mindbodygreen), which contains magnesium bisglycinate, jujube, and PharmaGABA.

“From my very first night taking this supplement, I saw a big difference in my sleep,” gushes Csukas. “It was the best sleep experience I’d had in a year or more.”

Sounds wonderful. Too bad no trials have tested whether Sleep Support+ helps people who are randomly assigned to take it or a placebo. But why bother with evidence when anecdotes and testimonials are so persuasive?


headline about breakfasts than can double weight loss and image of a bowl of blueberries and granola

Getting readers to see the articles—and, more importantly, the embedded ads—on your website is what it’s all about. And what better way than with an outrageous headline.

Take this “fact-checked” article on Eat This, Not That! Who wouldn’t want to double their weight loss?

What’s the evidence that you can “supercharge your weight loss...by combining two foods with their own fat-burning powers” (run-of-the-mill combos like salmon plus avocado or oats plus nut butter)?

Eat This, Not That! doesn’t cite a single study showing that any of the pairs “can double weight loss.”

Studies? Not a high priority when ad revenue is at stake.

“What they don’t want you to know...”

Facebook post with headline stating covid vaccines "may destroy lives" with screenshot of video

“Conspiracy theories tend to flourish in times of crisis,” Karen Douglas, a psychologist at the University of Kent in the UK, told the Washington Post in 2020.

Hello, Covid-19.

In 2021, the Center for Countering Digital Hate published a report exposing “The Disinformation Dozen,” 12 anti-vaxxers who spread misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines.

Nearly 75 percent of the anti-vax content posted to Facebook in early 2021 could be linked to those 12, reported the CCDH.

Among the dozen: alternative health guru Joseph Mercola.

For decades, Mercola has peddled far-fetched health claims—like fluoride is a neurotoxin, radiation from wireless devices is linked to everything from anxiety to infertility, and diets fail because grains are addictive.

Mercola is also happy to sell you a slew of supplements, water filters, pricey packaged foods, and more.

(In 2020, Nutrition Action’s publisher, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, alerted the FDA that Mercola falsely claimed that 22 products available for sale on his website could prevent, treat, or cure Covid-19. The FDA later sent a warning letter to Mercola.)

And Mercola’s reach is vast. He has more than 1.7 million followers on Facebook alone. An article entitled “How COVID-19 ‘Vaccines’ May Destroy the Lives of Millions” was shared more than 12,000 times on Facebook, according to the CCDH.

Yet more than 600 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered in the United States, and serious reactions are rare.

Misinformation matters. Vaccines could have prevented 234,000 deaths from Covid-19 since mid-2021, according to one estimate.

A recent study co-authored by CSPI president Peter Lurie reported that Covid-19 vaccine misinformation was rare in the 100 largest traditional news media sources. But that was still roughly 1,000 articles (out of 1.3 million). The study didn’t look at social media, which is likely to be worse.

How to spot a conspiracy theory? Be wary of claims that experts are hiding secrets or that a small group of global elites with nefarious goals is in control.

More fact vs. fiction