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Sorting fact from fiction: A guide to spotting health misinformation

by Mei Chen | Analysis

16 February 2024

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woman holding a smartphone scrolling

You’ve just sat down after a long day. Perhaps you’re scrolling on your phone or reading the newspaper and trying to unwind.  Then you come across a headline: ‘New study shows eating 50 slices of burnt toast causes cancer’, and you think ‘Oh great, yet another thing I have to avoid’.

But perhaps the first thought should be ‘Is this true?’

The internet is filled with many conflicting claims about health and cancer, so it’s hard to know whether we’re trusting the right information.  

Misinformation is information that is inaccurate, outdated, incomplete, false or misleading. And often, it can really affect us, causing upset or even harm. That’s why it’s important to think critically about the information we encounter, and decide for ourselves whether we think it’s trustworthy. 

It’s easier said than done, but priming ourselves to be more aware of misinformation can help make us better at identifying ‘fake news’.  

So, here are 5 tips you can try out to help identify misinformation when reading a headline or social media post about cancer.  

1. Can you trust the source? 

In the age of the internet, it’s pretty easy for anyone to make a claim or post information about health and cancer. And it’s often possible for posts to reach lots of people without necessarily having the evidence to back their claims up.  

Information can be fabricated and spread with an agenda in mind. It can be swayed by personal or political beliefs or it might just be designed to sell you something. So, in the same way you wouldn’t open an email from a sender you didn’t recognise, you also shouldn’t trust health information that comes from an unknown source. Consider if the outlet sharing the health information has the credentials and expertise to back it up. Is the social media account or news outlet known for publishing quality content? 

Good content on health information should also include references showing where the information comes from. For example, a high quality news article might cite guidance from a governmental body or a specific original research study.  

So do some digging. Looking into where information has been shared from can help you decide whether it is trustworthy. 

2. Does the story accurately represent the original study? 

Articles or social media posts often talk about scientific studies. However, sometimes misinformation can arise when the information provided doesn’t truly represent the findings from the original study. For example, some posts might cherrypick information from studies, without giving readers the full picture. 

When reading articles or posts on scientific studies, here are a couple of key things you can look out for: 

Animal or cell studies 

Early scientific research often takes place in animals or cells. However, how things work in animals or cells won’t always be the same as in humans. Humans can also be affected by real world factors such as alcohol and smoking.  So, be wary of content that generalises results from animal and cell studies and applies them to humans.

Correlation vs causation 

A study might show that there’s a link between cancer and something like how many socks you own (completely fictional by the way). And the news headline reporting on the study might say ‘Owning fewer socks causes cancer’. But this headline is misleading as the study didn’t prove that cancer is a direct result of owning fewer socks. Instead, it might have merely found an association or correlation that people who own more socks may be less likely to get cancer. But not a cause.  

There could be many reasons behind this association. For example, people might need more socks as they have to change them more often because they go running every morning. And because they run a lot, it helps them to keep a healthy weight, which is a proven way to reduce the risk of cancer.

So just because something might show a statistical association with cancer, it doesn’t mean it definitely causes it. 

Credibility of the research 

All good journalism should report information based on quality sources. That’s vital for articles on science, health and cancer.  

To check if the scientific source is good quality, it can be worthwhile to ask these questions: Was the study peer-reviewed? Has it been published in a respected journal? Who was it funded by? Did the news article mention the limitations of the study? Does the conclusion truly reflect the results? 

This can feel incredibly complex, but sometimes just a small amount of digging can reveal poor sources very quickly.  

Take a look at our article on spotting fake news and our webpage on how Cancer Research UK evaluates evidence for even more tips on judging a study. 

3. What’s the context?  

It often seems like a new study comes out everyday saying something new about cancer. While scientific discoveries are a wonderful thing, it can be difficult to navigate all the ‘breakthroughs’ that get talked about online or in the media. What does it mean if a new finding conflicts with something you’ve read before? Should that be enough to change how you think and act? 

Often, a new study or piece of research can get a lot of attention in the media and online, especially if it’s something that might have a big impact on our daily lives. But it’s very rare that just one study will completely change scientific consensus on a topic. 

So, consider if this new finding says something completely different to previous high-quality studies and big-brained academics. If something is contradicting scientific consensus, it can be a good indicator that you might need to delve deeper to investigate the claims.  

Context can be really important when talking about new findings. Responsible news reporting should be giving readers an accurate idea of how this new research fits in with the wider scientific literature. And they should make clear what research is still needed. 

You can rely on Cancer News for that. This site is where we cover recent developments on a variety of cancer topics as well as explaining and contextualising some of the most important research.

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4. Does it use shocking or provoking language to hide misinformation? 

Health misinformation can play on our emotions. Emotional language can be more persuasive, drawing us into believing something that’s not necessarily true. And often, shocking or provoking language helps misinformation spread quickly and virally on the internet. 

So, take a moment to step back. Consider if the news article or social media post that you’ve come across is overly emotive or shocking. Try to look past content that makes bold, provoking statements but doesn’t provide the scientific evidence to back it up.  

Instead, stick to health information that aims to inform and leads with facts that are supported by good quality evidence. Being aware of the use of emotional language will help you spot misinformation. It’s often hiding behind scary headlines. 

Despite what some of those headlines might say, when it comes to preventing cancer, there’s not one quick fix.  It’s far more complex than that, so if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But there are things that you can do to reduce your risk, like not smoking and keeping a healthy weight. Check out our website for more information on healthy changes you can make. 

5. Cross check with reliable sources of information 

Altogether these tips might seem quite overwhelming, but with so much misinformation out there it’s important we learn how to look at information with a critical eye.  

One of the easiest and best ways to check whether something you’ve read is fact or fiction is to use well-recognised accurate and reliable sources of health information. These can be websites like or our very own 

If you’ve read something new or want to question a piece of health information, check what the experts say. This can often give you good idea if it’s misinformation, or if there’s some truth behind it.  

logo of the Patient Information Forum (PIF) tick
PIF Tick

You can check that a website is a reliable source if it has the Patient Information Forum (PIF) Tick accreditation. This is the UK-wide quality mark for trusted health information.  

We’re proud to say that Cancer Research UK’s health and patient information is approved by the PIF.

To get our PIF-tick, we must show that we go through a robust production process and our information is based on up-to-date and high-quality evidence. We have hundreds of pages covering many different topics about cancer, including one on burnt toast from that headline earlier.  

So, the next time you come across information online related to health or cancer, take a minute to think about whether it could be misinformation. Not everything you read is true or trustworthy, so take back control and make an informed decision over the information you choose to believe or reshare. 


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