This is the seventh and final installment of our blog series exploring the articles in the special issue on “Fake News” from the Journal of American Folklore (vol. 131, no. 522)! The special issue on “Fake News” from the Journal of American Folklore (vol. 131, no. 522) is available in print and on JSTOR now.
Alternative Health Websites and Fake News: Taking a Stab at Definition, Genre, and Belief
By: Andrea Kitta
I first began my study of vaccination discourse fifteen years ago when I noticed the amount of false medical information online. At the time, I felt a little like Cassandra, doomed to tell the truth and have no one listen, as I gave lecture after lecture warning people about the dangers of not vaccinating. While folk medicine practices are an important part of health and often have a basis in science (albeit not the formalized type of scientific thought that is favored by biomedicine), these websites and forums were producing information that was falsified, linking to studies that often did not exist or hyperbolizing medical research in a way that was not intended by the original researchers. While this certainly isn’t the only predecessor of fake news, it is linked to the Macedonian fake news complex and other fake news sites which were primarily used for profit. However, this is not the only purpose of fake news, it can also be used to critique opponents and/or ideologies and it can be used to create chaos and disinformation for no other reason than because one can.
All of this is troubling, especially in medicine, as these beliefs become the basis of medical decision-making, which result in actions that not only affect the individual, but society as a whole, with vaccination as just one example. As the US watches vaccination rates drop and as outbreaks of measles and other preventable illnesses become more common, how do we negotiate the complicated matter of belief systems (our own and others), legend, and scientific information? How do we combat false information when the recitation of facts is typically ineffective? And what should we, as folklorists, do about it?