Breast cancer and online misinformation

Written by: Rosie Lobley

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, drawing attention to the risk and burden of breast cancer, which will affect around one in seven women and one in 833 men during their lifetime.1 Breast cancer is the world’s most prevalent cancer, with 2.3 million diagnoses and 685 000 deaths globally in 2020.2

Cancer diagnoses are uniquely stressful and leave patients particularly vulnerable to exploitation by bad actors. The rise in popularity of social media has helped facilitate the sharing of medical misinformation,3 a phenomenon which has been further exacerbated by a diminished sense of trust in medical expertise by the public. The Lancet Oncology attributes this to a number of causes, citing “a collision between personal autonomy, specious journalism, social media, widespread disinformation, and political marginalisation, which together undermine the value placed on science and academic endeavour”.4

Sharing misinformation

One in three cancer articles shared on social media contain elements of misinformation or potentially harmful assertions.5 Users of online platforms aimed at breast cancer patients and survivors have reported encountering posters promoting fraudulent treatments, who are later revealed to be salespeople promoting their product.6 The advertising algorithms used by social media platforms mean that users who post about having cancer are then targeted for, often fraudulent, cancer treatment advertisements.7 In 2017, the UK charity Macmillan Cancer Support hired its first ‘digital nurse’, a role created specifically to address the spread of misinformation about cancer online.8

Inaccurate stories or articles about breast cancer are more widely shared than scientifically accurate pieces across Facebook (which had over 2.7 billion active monthly users as of 2020), Pinterest (442 million users), Reddit (430 million users) and Twitter (321 million users).9 Pinterest, whose user base is around 70% female, is described as a “significant vector of misinformation” about breast cancer, with more than half of allegedly factual claims about prevention and treatment made on the site containing misinformation.10

YouTube, which has more than 2.3 billion active monthly users as of 2021,11 has drawn particular criticism for its tolerance of misinformation. A 2019 BBC investigation found advertisements for major commercial brands such as Samsung and Heinz displayed alongside misleading and potentially dangerous videos promoting fake cancer cures.12 Elsewhere, a 2020 study assessing the veracity of YouTube content covering breast cancer in particular found that few of the videos hosted on the site contained information of significant quality, and that many of the videos were in some way inaccurate or misleading.13

Addressing and preventing harm

Misinformation about cancer treatment is actively harmful, as it can lead to people refusing conventional treatment in favour of unproven therapies – with a correspondingly heightened risk of death.21 Patients who rely on unproven ‘alternative’ medicines to treat breast cancer are nearly six times more likely to die from their cancer than those who undergo conventional treatment.22 There is still a pressing need for further extensive research into the spread of cancer misinformation on social media.23 Researchers advocate a “multifaceted” approach to addressing cancer misinformation online, highlighting the benefits of public awareness campaigns, the role of media outlets in moderating user content, and the need for updated, enforceable legislation governing the promotion of alleged cancer treatments online.24

There is a wealth of reliable, evidence-based sources of information on breast cancer available, both on and off the internet. Charities including Breast Cancer Now,25 Cancer Research UK26 and Macmillan Cancer Support27 offer a range of accurate information and support for breast cancer patients and their caregivers; as does the UK’s National Health Service.28 These online resources can also help users to find local in-person patient and survivor support groups, which are particularly beneficial in enabling members to stay informed and supporting their mental wellbeing.29

References
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    2. Breast Cancer UK. About breast cancer: facts and figures. 2021. Available at: https://bit.ly/30H6o8i [Accessed October 2021].
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