For millions of Americans, including health professionals, the resurgence of measles is a confounding and frightening development. How can a disease declared eliminated nearly two decades ago come back when it can be prevented with a vaccine proven to be safe and effective?
But that’s not the reality for those getting their health information from online sources such as NaturalNews.com, one of many health-focused sites that peddle false and misleading claims to large audiences.
NaturalNews.com was founded by Mike Adams, who claims to have cured his own type 2 diabetes with natural remedies. Through a network of more than 200 websites, with names such as VaccineHolocaust.org and Healthfreedom.news, Adams has long promoted the debunked claim that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism.
During the current outbreak, this network of websites has trumpeted various falsehoods, such as stating that most people infected with the measles in Washington state had already been vaccinated. In fact, as of July 22, the state’s health department says only four of the 87 measles cases reported this year involve patients who had received two doses of the MMR vaccine.
According to analysis by my employer, NewsGuard, NaturalNews.com articles have declared the measles outbreak a “false flag” that originated with “infected migrants.” Similarly, Adams’ network has reported that an outbreak in New Hampshire was caused by the vaccine itself (a false claim based on state officials having mistaken someone’s reaction to the vaccine as a confirmed measles case). And the network has been relying on an old “Brady Bunch” episode as evidence that a measles infection is “typically very mild, much like getting chickenpox,” overlooking the serious complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis that typically accompany the disease.
NaturalNews.com is far from alone, according NewsGuard, a journalist-run service that rates the reliability of news and information websites using basic, apolitical criteria of journalism.
NewsGuard has rated and provided “Nutrition Labels” for the nearly 3,000 news and information websites that account for 96% of engagement online in the U.S. And while websites peddling political conspiracies and Russian disinformation generate considerable attention, data from NewsGuard indicate that websites promoting health misinformation are at least as alarming.
Americans consume an unhealthy diet of health misinformation. Of the sites analyzed by NewsGuard, 11% provide misinformation about health; in other words, more than 1 in 10 news websites accessed by Americans includes bad information about health.
NewsGuard uses nine basic journalistic criteria to rate websites — designating each either green for being generally reliable or red for being generally not reliable. Of all the sites with red ratings, 37% publish false or unfounded health claims.
These sites accounted for more than 49 million engagements (shares, likes, comments, etc.) on social media in the past 90 days — more than major news websites such as NPR, Business Insider, or Forbes. In a recent search on Facebook for “vaccines and CDC,” several of the top-page results were from NewsGuard red-rated websites.
NewsGuard was co-founded last year by journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill (known in part for his health care reporting) and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz. In rating news and information sites in the U.S., Italy, U.K., France, and Germany, it has discovered a diverse spectrum of health sites. These range from green-rated peer-reviewed medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine to hundreds of red-rated conspiracy-minded sites such as NaturalNews.com and Collective-Evolution.com, where vaccine-autism stories can be found next to articles claiming the 9/11 terrorist attacks were staged.
Americans who search symptoms or diseases online may come across well-sourced health information on sites such as WebMD or Healthline. But also high up in search results and social shares are sites with names such as GreenMedInfo and Healthy Holistic Living, which present themselves as authoritative reference guides on health topics while relying on false claims and misrepresented sources to promote alternative medical treatments.
While both of those sites promote a disproven link between vaccines and autism, their deceptive practices go beyond questioning vaccine safety. GreenMedInfo is one of many sites rated by NewsGuard that presents marijuana as a proven cure for cancer, asserting in a December 2018 article, for example, that “medical marijuana is chemotherapy, natural style, for cancer patients.” (Broader scientific reviews have come to a different conclusion; a 2017 report on marijuana from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined “there is insufficient evidence to support or refute the conclusion that cannabinoids are an effective treatment for cancers.”)
These sites sometimes reference multiple peer-reviewed studies, lending their claims an air of credibility that vanishes upon close inspection. A headline on Healthy Holistic Living reads, “Studies Show That Magnesium Treats ADHD Better and Safer Than ADHD Drugs,” but none of the four studies cited backed that conclusion — in fact, three of the four did not even mention ADHD. The one that did, a 2014 study published in the journal Children, contradicted the article’s claims. The site later edited the story after being contacted for comment by NewsGuard.
This plague of health misinformation comes in many fevers, from the seemingly innocuous (there is no solid evidence behind the idea that Epsom salt baths heal sore muscles) to the potentially dangerous (if you take amygdalin, vitamin B17, or laetrile, different names for the same long-debunked “cancer cure” made from fruit pits, you can experience side effects that mirror the symptoms of cyanide poisoning).
Belief in natural or alternative medicine is often driven by a distrust of doctors and the pharmaceutical industry. Ironically, the transparency practices at otherwise reliable health sites may only reinforce those skeptics’ suspicions. In reviewing the transparency practices of the Mayo Clinic’s website, for example, NewsGuard found that 19 of the site’s medical editors had accepted payments from pharma or medical device companies between 2013 and 2017. The site could not provide any example where an editor’s financial interest in a product was mentioned in a Mayo Clinic article. These potential conflicts of interest aside, MayoClinic.org provides credible, well-sourced health information, with its articles reviewed by doctors and other medical professionals.
Unfortunately, reputable websites like the Mayo Clinic’s often aren’t the ones that news consumers turn to for answers. When it comes to social media engagement, for example, Mayo Clinic is being surpassed by the likes of Herbs-Info.com, which states vaccinated children are “sicker” than the unvaccinated; ReturnToNow.net, which claims raw, unpasteurized milk can be used to treat cancer; and HealthyFoodHouse.com, which promotes the cure-all “alkaline diet” of non-acidic foods that supposedly lowers the pH levels in your blood and organs (which is actually regulated by the lungs and kidneys and cannot be changed through diet modification).
Each of these sites has amassed more than a million shares of its articles on Facebook over the past 90 days, ranking in the top 700 news and information sites in terms of social media engagement, based on NewsGuard data. MayoClinic.org did not crack the top 3,000 websites.
John Gregory, a former senior health care reporter at TriMed Media, is an analyst for NewsGuard. To learn more about NewsGuard, go to Newsguardtech.com for its criteria for assessing news websites and a link to download its free browser extension or access its ratings on mobile phones through Microsoft Edge.