The Dangers of Health Misinformation Online: Fake News is Coming for Oral Healthcare

Part one of the Incisor's two-part series looking at how fake health news impacts dentistry and threatens the well-being of patients. Health misinformation has become so critical that the US Surgeon General issued an advisory on the matter. 

By Genni Burkhart

On average, Americans (i.e., your dental patients) spend nearly two and a half hours a day on social media. However, the daily average for total time spent on cellphones is much higher, at five and a half hours.

There's no denying the COVID-19 pandemic elevated everyone’s digital devotions, due in part to a constant cycle of breaking news, and partly from it becoming the best method of communication during lockdowns and quarantines. But, as we've learned, anyone can post anything on social media. This has led to increased criticism of social media and technology companies for not doing enough to address this problem.

What we're left with is an echo chamber. And the repercussions of that are not only felt in politics, science, research, and public health initiatives, but in medical and oral healthcare as well.

Misinformation is a Threat to Public Health

Enter the cringe-worthy phrase: " But I Googled it."

A 2018 study in Health Policy and Technology found that 40% of the most frequently shared health-related news on social media contains misinformation. And this inaccurate, misleading content was much more likely to be shared by users with "limited medical knowledge." Researchers in this study also concluded that this misinformation contained unfounded and unreliable claims that emphasized anecdotal stories and fake reports meant to shock the reader, rather than providing them with facts and reliable statistics.

And while most people believe they'd be able to spot online misinformation from legitimate, peer-reviewed, scientifically proven, researched facts – they're not.

According to an MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) on the Spread of True and False News Online, people are no longer content with being passive consumers of health information. While taking an active role in one's own health is a positive move, trusting unverified health misinformation is not.

“Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. … Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.” (“Confronting Health Misinformation”) — US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

We'll break down The Dangers of Health Misinformation into a two-part series. In this article, we dive into understanding how this issue poses a threat to the practice of dentistry and the health of patients. In part two, we'll review solutions and steps dental professionals can take to combat the spread of health misinformation and protect the wellbeing of their patients.

Why Does Misinformation Spread So Easily?

It's important to first realize why false claims spread so quickly, and with such ease. Perhaps it's just human nature, but sensationalized and shocking stories attract our attention.

USA Today recently published a story about fact-checking a viral claim that root canals can impair the body's immune response. According to the report, hundreds of people shared a Facebook post from early January of this year, with the text, "One root canal tooth can shut down 63% of your immune system,” written across the image of an abscessed tooth. This was clearly meant to heighten the shock value. A similar meme was shared earlier last year on another social media platform garnishing thousands of likes and shares. It turns out this misinformation originated from a 2019 debunked theory documentary pulled from Netflix that PolitiFact investigated.

Looking at this specific example, we see that misinformation can spread quickly and endure on social media long after experts have declared it false. But why do people fall for misinformation so easily? Here are a few reasons:

  • Rising distrust of the media and government.
  • Anyone can post anything on social media with complete disregard for the "burden of truth" that is otherwise honored by respectable news organizations and journalists when reporting stories and information.
  • Social media algorithms mix "news" content with updates from friends and family in their feeds so it's difficult to differentiate "facts from feelings."
  • People often skim read, (especially on social media) lowering their attention span.
  • Fake news appeals to beliefs and emotions.
  • Unregulated proliferation of internet bots.

What's The Harm?

Telling people that "getting a root canal could shut down their immune system" can be harmful to their health – if they believe it. Nonetheless, it can't be assumed that these debunked and sensationalized stories will immediately be seen as implausible to everyone – and it's important for healthcare professionals, including dentists, to understand this.

Outlandish Social Media Trends

The Incisor previously reported on the dangers of social media trends impacting oral health. From Jawzrsize to InstaMorph do-it-yourself dentures, this form of misinformation can cause everything from TMD to gastrointestinal disorders, to irreparable tooth damage. This year the trends to look out for include: apple cider vinegar shots, brushing with activated charcoal, “bejeweling” teeth, do-it-yourself teeth whiteners, and the tooth gap "London Look."

Misinformation of this type is targeted towards younger generations that scroll through social media more frequently and are more likely to follow these harmful dental trends, misinterpreting them as legitimate dental advice.

Breakdown of Patient Trust and Reputation

A study done by physicians at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York discovered a lack of regulation on the overall quality of health information shared on social media platforms. Furthermore, the growing spread of this misinformation poses a real danger to the health of patients through the deterioration of trust with their physicians.

Patient trust further deteriorates when individuals make false or exaggerated claims through online reviews and social media platforms. Because HIPAA prevents doctors from discussing or disputing information about a patient in a public space, it's exceedingly difficult for physicians and dentists to defend themselves against misinformation shared online. This leaves medical professionals exposed to publicized castigation on digital platforms, potentially impacting the trust and reputation they have with their patients, potential patients, peers, and community. 


Health misinformation has led people to do all sorts of unbelievably dangerous things, while simultaneously not doing what is proven safe and effective. This issue has become so critical that Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, issued an advisory on the subject.

While the spread of misinformation is nothing new, the scale at which it's now expanded into healthcare is alarming. With so many Americans getting their news and yes, medical advice from social media, it's crucial for dentists to fully understand the dangers of health misinformation online.

Look for the second half of The Dangers of Health Misinformation in the next issue of the Incisor.

Author: With over 12 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart’s career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, technology, and news. She resides on the western shores of the idyllic Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief for the Incisor at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.

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