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Digital Distortions: Combatting Online Misinformation, Disinformation, and Myths

It’s past your bedtime, and you know you should stop scrolling social media. But it’s been a long day, and you just want to unwind.
The flow of images and text is helping you relax—until … Oh, no. Another terribly inaccurate message about lactation pops up on your screen.
Maybe it’s a post suggesting that babies wean naturally at six months, or don’t need to nurse at night past 12 weeks … or someone suggesting that pain with breast- or chest-feeding is normal or inevitable.
Or a cleverly crafted formula ad with language suggesting human milk feeding is difficult and unnecessary.
Now, instead of going down, your heart rate is going up.
You know the information is inaccurate. The thought of parents seeing and believing it—and taking action based on it—is distressing! What can you do?
Myths about health topics are nothing new. But what is new is how fast and wide mistaken messages can travel, thanks to the Internet and social media.
Jeanette McCulloch, IBCLC, and Amber McCann, IBCLC, are the authors of Lactation Education Resource’s course, Something is Wrong on the Internet: Correcting Health Misinformation Online. In this course, McCulloch and McCann dive deeply into the world of online lactation misinformation and disinformation—why it exists, why it persists, and what lactation professionals can do about it.
Check out the five “do this, not this” steps below, and next time you encounter untrue lactation information online, you’ll know exactly how to proceed.
Don’t: Spend your energy trying to correct every wrong message you see. McCulloch calls this approach “playing whack-a-mole,” and it’s a surefire way to become demoralized. It’s also ineffective.
Do this instead: Concentrate on disseminating your own accurate messages. “We need as a profession to get away from … trying to tamp down inaccurate messages and instead, do what we can to flood the market with positive, accurate messaging that we can turn back to time and time again,” McCulloch says.
Don’t: Focus only on the facts.
When we encounter misinformation about lactation, our instinct can be to just get the truth out there.
After all, if families hear the facts, they’ll act on them, right?
Not necessarily.
Facts are important, but they’re only part of the picture.
Here’s a great example. In one study, parents who didn’t vaccinate were asked why they opted out. Parents who responded that they believed vaccines cause autism were presented with research disproving that belief.
Afterward? The parents said they no longer believed vaccines cause autism … and they still chose not to vaccinate.
McCann explains it this way: When presented with facts that challenged their choices, parents shifted to saying, “Why don’t I vaccinate? Well, maybe vaccines don’t cause autism, but I do have some other concerns.”
Clearly, facts alone are not the answer.
Do this instead: To be effective, go beyond the facts and learn how to present a message that sticks.
To make a message sticky, McCulloch and McCann suggest using the SUCCES acronym, originated by Chip and Dan Heath. Messages that are remembered and which change behavior are:
  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories
If you develop messages with these characteristics, your messages will stick with the families who encounter them—and this is the best way to combat misinformation.
Don’t:  Assume that online misinformation has to be combatted online.
“Just because families are encountering misinformation doesn’t mean that you have to be online to combat it,” McCulloch says.
Do this instead: Concentrate on great messaging across all arenas where you cross paths with families.
“[I]ntegrate these ideas into how you teach lactation classes and to how you provide lactation education while you’re providing care,” McCulloch advises.
Armed with these accurate, sticky messages from their encounters with you, families will be equipped to do their own myth-busting when they come across misinformation online.
Don’t: Try to fix the Internet.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to online myths, it seems to be true. Researchers at MIT who compared accurate and inaccurate news stories found that misleading headlines reached 1,500 people six times faster than true ones.
“Feeling despairing yet?” McCulloch asks. “You are not alone. However, there are things we can do about it.”
A key step is accepting that online misinformation is not a problem that will “get fixed.”
Do this instead: Rather than feeling desperate to correct each piece of false advice or misinformation you see, accept that the problem of Internet misinformation is here to stay, and focus on the long game.
Keep putting your simple, accurate, concrete messages—complete with stories and emotional appeal—out into the world, in whatever forum you find yourself.
“Our role in combatting misinformation is a lifelong commitment, not a quick fix,” McCulloch says.
The last “don’t”? Don’t give up.
“Our efforts absolutely make a difference!” McCann says.
For a deep dive into this issue, including the toxic “recipe” that has added up to so much online health misinformation, details on how to follow the SUCCES formula to create great messages, and much more, enroll in LER’s course here.
Digital Distortions
It’s past your bedtime, and you know you should stop scrolling social media. But it’s been a long day, and you just want to unwind.
The flow of images and text is helping you relax—until … Oh, no. Another terribly inaccurate message about lactation pops up on your screen.
Maybe it’s a post suggesting that babies wean naturally at six months, or don’t need to nurse at night past 12 weeks … or someone suggesting that pain with breast- or chest-feeding is normal or inevitable.
Or a cleverly crafted formula ad with language suggesting human milk feeding is difficult and unnecessary.
Now, instead of going down, your heart rate is going up.
You know the information is inaccurate. The thought of parents seeing and believing it—and taking action based on it—is distressing! What can you do?
Myths about health topics are nothing new. But what is new is how fast and wide mistaken messages can travel, thanks to the Internet and social media.
Jeanette McCulloch, IBCLC, and Amber McCann, IBCLC, are the authors of Lactation Education Resource’s course, Something is Wrong on the Internet: Correcting Health Misinformation Online. In this course, McCulloch and McCann dive deeply into the world of online lactation misinformation and disinformation—why it exists, why it persists, and what lactation professionals can do about it.
Check out the five “do this, not this” steps below, and next time you encounter untrue lactation information online, you’ll know exactly how to proceed.
Don’t: Spend your energy trying to correct every wrong message you see. McCulloch calls this approach “playing whack-a-mole,” and it’s a surefire way to become demoralized. It’s also ineffective.
Do this instead: Concentrate on disseminating your own accurate messages. “We need as a profession to get away from … trying to tamp down inaccurate messages and instead, do what we can to flood the market with positive, accurate messaging that we can turn back to time and time again,” McCulloch says.
Don’t: Focus only on the facts.
When we encounter misinformation about lactation, our instinct can be to just get the truth out there.
After all, if families hear the facts, they’ll act on them, right?
Not necessarily.
Facts are important, but they’re only part of the picture.
Here’s a great example. In one study, parents who didn’t vaccinate were asked why they opted out. Parents who responded that they believed vaccines cause autism were presented with research disproving that belief.
Afterward? The parents said they no longer believed vaccines cause autism … and they still chose not to vaccinate.
McCann explains it this way: When presented with facts that challenged their choices, parents shifted to saying, “Why don’t I vaccinate? Well, maybe vaccines don’t cause autism, but I do have some other concerns.”
Clearly, facts alone are not the answer.
Do this instead: To be effective, go beyond the facts and learn how to present a message that sticks.
To make a message sticky, McCulloch and McCann suggest using the SUCCES acronym, originated by Chip and Dan Heath. Messages that are remembered and which change behavior are:
  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories
If you develop messages with these characteristics, your messages will stick with the families who encounter them—and this is the best way to combat misinformation.
Don’t:  Assume that online misinformation has to be combatted online.
“Just because families are encountering misinformation doesn’t mean that you have to be online to combat it,” McCulloch says.
Do this instead: Concentrate on great messaging across all arenas where you cross paths with families.
“[I]ntegrate these ideas into how you teach lactation classes and to how you provide lactation education while you’re providing care,” McCulloch advises.
Armed with these accurate, sticky messages from their encounters with you, families will be equipped to do their own myth-busting when they come across misinformation online.
Don’t: Try to fix the Internet.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to online myths, it seems to be true. Researchers at MIT who compared accurate and inaccurate news stories found that misleading headlines reached 1,500 people six times faster than true ones.
“Feeling despairing yet?” McCulloch asks. “You are not alone. However, there are things we can do about it.”
A key step is accepting that online misinformation is not a problem that will “get fixed.”
Do this instead: Rather than feeling desperate to correct each piece of false advice or misinformation you see, accept that the problem of Internet misinformation is here to stay, and focus on the long game.
Keep putting your simple, accurate, concrete messages—complete with stories and emotional appeal—out into the world, in whatever forum you find yourself.
“Our role in combatting misinformation is a lifelong commitment, not a quick fix,” McCulloch says.
The last “don’t”? Don’t give up.
“Our efforts absolutely make a difference!” McCann says.
For a deep dive into this issue, including the toxic “recipe” that has added up to so much online health misinformation, details on how to follow the SUCCES formula to create great messages, and much more, enroll in LER’s course here.
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