These 2 mistakes make online health information appear untrustworthy

We live in a time of unlimited information. Unfortunately, not all of that information is accurate. As the internet and technology have continued to advance at a rapid rate, we’ve all witnessed the rise of misinformation, fake news, and social media manipulation right before our very eyes. For those of us old enough to remember Myspace and the early days of Facebook it’s hard to believe how much the internet has changed, both for better and for worse.

Today everywhere online is flooded with COVID-19 content and coverage. From the latest on vaccine research to daily updates on case counts, the coronavirus has dominated the news cycle over the past few months. Beyond accredited news sources, it seems like everyone and their brother is posting coronavirus advice, recommendations on how to stay safe, and “best practices.”

All of that information, much of which contradicts other reports and stories, can be overwhelming for anyone. So, how are people deciding which health reports to believe? A new study from the University of Sussex and the Brighton and Sussex Medical School has identified two characteristics sure to make online health information appear less believable and legitimate to readers.

Based on the study’s analysis, people are less likely to believe health information they read online if it contains spelling errors or includes “shouting” (words written in all caps).

The researchers behind this study say health organizations, doctors, and governments the world over should take note of their findings. For reasons too complex to dive into in this article, millions of people are already wary of placing their trust in entities like the WHO, CDC, or any number of other accredited sources of health information. If valid and legitimate advice is written with spelling errors or words written in all caps, it could cause more people to ignore it.

“This is all about trust, which is vital at the moment. If you’re reading something online and you instinctively don’t believe what it’s saying, then you won’t follow the advice. If the advice is genuine and important, then that’s a real problem, particularly at present when people are dying because others aren’t following important guidance,” explains lead study author Dr. Harry J Witchel, an expert in body language at BSMS.

“We’ve known for some time that people profoundly alter their judgments about what they hear based on contextual cues rather than just the content of what is said,” he adds. “But this research looks at how ‘shouting’ – using capital letters – and typographic errors both reduce the credibility of what is being read and is the first to show that the effects of both these errors add together quite precisely — as though readers were keeping score in their minds of all these little things.”

A total of 301 people took part in this study. Each person was asked to read some information posted on a health forum about multiple sclerosis, and then rank the posts based on trustworthiness. Some of those posts included spelling errors, others had some words written in all caps, and a few had a combination of both.

Participants’ ensuing responses indicated that just spelling errors alone make a piece of writing 9% less trustworthy, and words written in caps reduces a paragraph’s perceived believability by 6%. If a forum post had both types of errors, participants rated it as 14% less trustworthy.

“On the back of this research, my advice to any government or medical professional giving online advice on COVID-19 would be – research your audience!” Dr. Witchel concludes.

With so much misinformation everywhere online, it’s never been harder to convince people that what they’re reading is a fact. When it comes to COVID-19 health recommendations, it behooves health agencies to keep these findings in mind across all online channels.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

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