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Misinformation in Pharma’s Digital Age: Risks and Opportunities

Conspiracy theory, clickbait, hoax… the language that surrounds misinformation is at once confusing as it is complex. What unites all these terms however is the potential for harm they engender. In the pharmaceutical sector, misinformation can challenge the integrity of research, eroding public trust and, ultimately, public health. False narratives about drug efficacy, safety concerns, or fabricated claims can harm the reputation of pharmaceutical companies. But most importantly, can compromise patient care and health outcomes. 

What do we mean when we talk about misinformation? 

To navigate the complex world of false or misleading information, we typically use the following terms:

  • Misinformation: false or inaccurate information, which is usually shared without an intention to deceive. It can be the result of misunderstanding, mistakes, misinterpretations, or incomplete knowledge. 
  • Disinformation: deliberately false or misleading information, spread with the intent to deceive or manipulate others and cause harm. It’s often crafted and disseminated specifically to influence thinking and achieve a specific outcome. 
  • Malinformation: correct information, selectively shared or leaked with the intention to harm or damage reputation, credibility, or privacy. It can involve the disclosure of sensitive information (for instance, patient records).
  • Conspiracy theory: a belief, or combination of sometimes  contradictory or incongruent beliefs, that suggest a secretive, often malevolent, and typically complex plot by powerful individuals or organisations to manipulate events, often against the common good or the truth as widely understood (for instance, the World Health Organisation is often a target of conspiracy theories). 

Many people associate misinformation as something that exists on social media. But whilst social media may facilitate its spread and reach, health misinformation far predates the popular use of the internet. In a 1998 study, now retracted and riddled with methodological flaws, the measles vaccine was singled out as a cause for autism. Although thoroughly debunked since then, the study is still fueling misinformation and skepticism around vaccine safety and efficacy, its main author doing the rounds as an ‘anti-vaxxer’ conspiracy theorist, despite having been stripped of his medical license.

The consequences of misinformation

Misinformation is pervasive and moves fast. Amplifying the problem is the tendency of social media platforms to act as ‘echo chambers’ where false information crops up in multiple places simultaneously, or within a short timeframe, thus giving legitimacy to misinformation in the mind of patients and consumers. At best, misinformation can influence thinking which may change health circumstances for individuals, healthcare services or policymaking. At worst, it can cause direct harm to life: 

  1. Risk to life

False or incorrect  information, whether intentional or unintentional, can lead people to question the well-established efficacy and safety, as well as the proper way to take medicines. This can result in individuals not receiving appropriate treatments,  deliberately opting for ineffective remedies, or even experiencing unnecessary adverse events related to improper medicine use. 

  1. Harassment and abuse of health professionals

Social media allows patients to gather personal information about their health professionals, which in some contexts can be weaponised and result in campaigns of targeted online harassment and abuse, and, occasionally, real-world abuse. 

  1. Distrust in health systems

Widespread misinformation erodes the public’s and patient’s trust in healthcare professionals and the system they operate in. When patients encounter conflicting  information, it is often a short step to heavy cynicism about medical advice. This can  result in rejection of clinically trialed, validated treatments, compromising clinical  outcomes. 

  1. Preventative medicine hesitancy

Organised misinformation initiatives have played a major role in fuelling vaccine hesitancy, notably during the COVID-19 pandemic. False claims about vaccine safety, efficacy, and potential side effects, however well-intentioned, have led to decreased vaccine uptake, contributing to the continued spread of  the virus and hindering efforts to control the pandemic. 

  1. Increased trust in ‘alternative’ and ‘complementary’  medicines 

Mis/disinformation is a regular feature in the promotion of alternative or complementary medicines with unproven or untested effectiveness – at least by pharmaceutical  industry standards. This can lead individuals to foregoing evidence-based treatments in favour of unregulated or unverified remedies, which may be ineffective, unsafe, or interact negatively with prescribed medications. This is an area where misinformation looms large, as a commercial agenda often sits behind the content people are exposed to.

  1. Stigmatisation and discrimination 

Mis/disinformation can exacerbate and perpetuate stigma and discrimination against  many medical conditions as well as the communities in which they are prevalent. Often, this includes false claims about the nature of specific diseases, nowhere more apparent than the area of infectious disease, where the ‘behaviours’ of an individual are held to be the primary cause of disease contraction. This can deliver a strong psychological and mental health impact. 

Mitigating strategies

Misinformation is a fast-evolving, growing challenge with potential to harm patients. For the pharmaceutical industry, misinformation should be considered not only as part of a wider corporate and brand communications agenda, but as part of the business’ risk register. Any effective misinformation strategy will need to be grounded in evidence, and should be centered around:

  1. Establishing what information is harmful –  the true and genuine threats

Information environments are enormous, diverse and potentially overwhelming. It is neither feasible nor desirable to respond or plan to respond to all possible (critical or negative) narratives. It is therefore essential for the pharmaceutical industry to be able to discern signal from noise, identifying which information has the most potential to cause harm and should be the target of any intervention.

  1. Managing information threats effectively

Misinformation strategies will need to put patients and stakeholders first, and draw on the evidence-base to ensure that they do not fuel the misinformation fire with unnecessary, risky rebuttals or that they do not fail to take into account belief embeddedness in the target audiences. 

  1. Building resilience 

Updating and improving monitoring of the information environment to gain  a sharper,  quicker handle on misinformation trends before they become significant concerns. This intelligence can also be fed into the wider misinformation response plan, favouring proactive communication strategies over tactical responses designed to respond to external events as they arise whenever possible. 

Want to find out more? A full Lynn report on this will be available shortly. To receive your copy, please email contact@lynn.global

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