National / Science & Health | A MATTER OF HEALTH

When it comes to health info, online 'fake news' can have serious repercussions

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

A recent “fake news” scandal involving IT giant DeNA Co. shows how quickly bogus health information can make the rounds online.

According to a 300-page report released last month by a third-party panel looking into the scandal, Welq — one of the firm’s 10 content curation sites and one that focused on health — totally lacked the awareness that medical information should be handled carefully because inaccuracies can do serious harm to people’s health.

Instead, Welq worked hard to find an algorithm it could use to mass-produce articles that would dominate Google’s search rankings. The site managers also naively believed that, in an era when the most rigorously researched and reported works of journalism struggle to sell, they could strike it rich as long as they kept readers attracted to the site, regardless of accuracy.

As a result, some of the stories ended up looking like a bad joke, like the one that said ghosts might cause stiff shoulders. The story shows how the firm’s “search engine optimization” strategy was taken to extremes.

A Welq editor came up with the idea for the story about “stiff shoulders” and “ghosts” after typing in the former on Google and finding that the search engine’s auto-complete function suggested the latter as a related word. The editor then instructed a writer — one among the hundreds of crowdsourced contributors used by the site — to hack out a story that fit the outline.

DeNA even had a “growth hack section,” whose task was to mine for click-bait words to provide to managers of each site. The section, launched in September 2015, was promoted to a department in March 2016.

Welq, as well as the other nine sites, have been shut down in the wake of the scandal, but dubious and even potentially harmful health tips still abound.

Recently, a rumor of a rhinitis medicine possibly enlarging breasts quickly went viral on Twitter, with one user quipping it was “good news for the flat-chested across the nation.”

Meanwhile, word quickly spread late last year on how to inhale the powder form of Ryukakusan, an oral herbal medicine for sore throats and coughs, as if mimicking the use of heroin.

The “news” of the drug having stronger effects when snorted with a straw caused such a buzz on the internet that Ryukakusan Co., which markets the drug, issued a warning in December urging consumers to stick to its intended usage and dosage.

Such extreme cases aside, researchers say Japanese speakers are more likely to encounter misleading or unreliable health information through internet searches than English speakers.

A 2009 paper by Japanese lung cancer researchers published in the U.S.-based Journal of Thoracic Oncology examined the quality of information about the disease available on the internet in Japan and the U.S.

The team performed keyword searches for “lung cancer” using the Japanese and U.S. editions of Google as well as Yahoo Japan, a popular search engine here, and analyzed the top 50 websites on each.

The researchers then rated the sites as acceptable, unacceptable or inevaluable, based on such criteria as whether they mentioned standard lung cancer treatments from authorized sources or recommended alternative, unproven ones.

They found 80 percent of the websites generated by Google U.S. were acceptable, while the rate fell to 45.5 percent for Yahoo Japan and 37 percent for Google Japan.

The research also found that, while nonprofit organizations or public institutions ran 45.7 percent of the medical sites generated by Google U.S., such organizations accounted for only 15.9 percent and 7.4 percent of the Japanese-language sites on Yahoo Japan and Google Japan, respectively.

Meanwhile, 18.2 percent of the sites on Yahoo Japan and 22.2 percent on Google Japan were run by commercial entities hawking specific lung cancer treatments. No commercial sites made it to the top 50 on Google U.S.

Websites in the U.S. “provide information of much higher quality than those displayed by Japanese websites,” the authors concluded.

Can anything be done?

Kyoko Kitazawa, a veteran medical journalist and visiting professor at Kyoto Pharmaceutical University, says that web users in Japan need to improve their “health literacy,” or their ability to access, understand and apply health information to promote and maintain good health.

Chances of complete “fake news” making it to public-sector websites are relatively low, while sites whose administrators are hard or impossible to track down should be ignored or taken with a grain of salt at best, Kitazawa says.

At the same time, people need to be aware that more websites these days — whether Japanese or English — present news content right next to paid advertisements, she says.

“We need more initiatives to increase the number of people who can filter out bogus information,” she said.

A Matter of Health is a new weekly series on the latest health research, technology or policy issue in Japan. It appears on Thursdays.

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