scare·mon·ger·ing

/ˈskerˌməNGɡ(ə)riNG/

The spreading of frightening or ominous reports or rumours.

"Claims of scaremongering about the fate of jobs"

 click·bait

/ˈklikbāt/

(on the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.

"these recent reports of the show's imminent demise are hyperbolic clickbait"

In an age where information is so readily available literally at the tips of our fingers, there also comes a surge of informational sources that may be less than factual. Many people flock to blogs for their daily dose of news and other things, but there is now the danger that a majority of blogs don’t have fact-checkers to hold them accountable. Others may even bend the accuracy of their reports simply to scare people into connecting with them through clickbait, or even scaremongering.

Clickbait is usually a misleading headline that will lead you to an article that may be vague and/or refute the points that were initially claimed in the title. The main object of this is to get more readers to click into the article, even if they leave soon after discovering that the information was different from the title. While clickbait can be less harmful than scaremongering, it can still pose a problem, especially for those who don’t read articles correctly and will only skim the title for what information they need.

Scaremongering or fearmongering is deliberately providing news that may sound scarier than it actually is. It can be accompanied by the manipulation statistics for the effect of creating an environment of fear in readers. What’s special about fear is that it’s such a powerful, pre-conscious, pre-rational emotion. It frames your thinking before you can even think about it, regardless of how intelligent you are. Once someone can frame the way you think they can command your attention, they can suggest anything and it will sound accurate to you; there is power in suggestion.

There are good data showing that the first thing you hear makes the biggest impression — and that if it’s heard under emotional circumstances, which it’s always associated with that emotion. Nowadays many health bloggers and ‘influencers’ use scaremongering in place of actual information. They get their readers and followers to do things like denounce vaccination, based on playing on people’s emotions.

No, it’s not because you’re stupid; you can be completely intelligent, but be fooled by scaremongering. You’ve just finished reading a news story about a common food ingredient that researchers now believe may increase your risk of cancer — maybe the type of cancer that a close relative died from a few years ago. You’ve got chest pain. Your heart is racing. You feel nauseous and you’re sweating. The overriding feeling is one of anxiety. It’s not at all pleasant. Given how awful this news makes you feel and how often you read such stories day in and day out in the newspaper and in your Facebook feed. Naturally, your first instinct is to do everything you can to avoid dying of that same cancer, which in itself, is a form of self-preservation. You are now trying to save yourself and those around you. 

What about celebrities and their role in inappropriately stoking health fears?

There have been reports on vaccine fearmongering carried out by celebrities such as Katie Couric, who pushed an anecdote-laden story about the dangers of the HPV vaccine. One of the problems with the blatant fearmongering around health treatments is that legitimate questions about the dangers and risks of those treatments (in this case, the HPV vaccine) are never properly discussed. Physicians, who have gone to school and studied long years to understand medicine can comment that anti-HPV vaccine story, despite the “bizarre” and “awful” fearmongering on her show, “appropriate criticism of this particular vaccine is also unable to find the light of day.”

There certainly have been fear-mongering vibes in other sorts of supposedly science-y reporting, such as a Dr. Oz story that warned women not put their cell phones in their bra, lest they increase their risk of breast cancer. Dr. Oz’s bra story was a blatant piece of fearmongering. But speaking of cell phones, one story focused on a rat study and leapt to a most egregious and overhyped implication: mothers who paid too much attention to their smart phones were ignoring their babies and possibly leaving them irreparably emotionally damaged.

Scaremongering in news outlets

Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread, was once the victim in the ceaseless fearmongering over food. Outrageous headlines went viral on the Internet. The Daily Mail breathlessly shouted, “Could Nutella give you CANCER?” while Quartz wrote, “Stores Are Pulling Nutella After Report Links It To Cancer” — later corrected because initial reports by the BBC and other outlets were wrong. These stories give “fake news” a bad name. They are an embarrassment to journalism and a dereliction of duty. Once again, the media simply copied and pasted what other outlets reported, and few if any major news organizations did their jobs properly by reading the original scientific report.

The original study was produced by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The study wasn’t even about Nutella. Instead, it examined how many potentially cancer-causing contaminants existed in food products that contain palm and other oils (very common ingredients), and then it estimated how much people ate in their diets.

Its conclusion was rather boring: Most adults don’t eat enough of these contaminants to raise any health concerns. Infants and children consume more of these contaminants than adults, but their exposure level is still very far below what scientific studies have shown to be potentially dangerous in lab rats. Additionally, the palm oil in Nutella isn’t even the primary or biggest source of these contaminants in the average diet. Baby formula, cookies, pastries, cakes, potatoes, and margarine all contain these contaminants.

Moreover, there is no epidemiological evidence linking palm oil to cancer in humans. On the contrary, the tocotrienols present in palm and other oils could conceivably prevent cancer. And finally, the company that makes Nutella said it doesn't refine its palm oil at the high temperatures the study said increased risk. Nutrition research is often flimsy, and headlines reporting on them are generally over-simplified and hyperbolic. Bacon? Burnt toast? Hot water? Coffee? Wi-fi? Cell phones? Somebody, somewhere, has made a dubious claim linking each of them to cancer.

And watch out for food fearmongering…

In addition to health or social issues that give rise to fearmongering, there are many examples of diet studies claiming that too much (or too little) of one substance or another can lead to an early death. There are stories that stoked fears about food emulsifiers — the ingredients that make it possible for fat and water to mix in all kinds of products ranging from ice cream to mayonnaise. The problem? The study that serves as the basis for the coverage gave rodents doses of lab-created carcinogens along with the emulsifiers — and yet the emulsifiers were singled out in the coverage and blamed for causing the cancer.

Similarly, an NBC story went beyond the pale in suggesting that the average U.S diet, rich in red meat, sugar and fat “may kill prostate cancer survivors.” The big sin here is taking a smallish observational study about diet and then leaving readers with a misleading message that they could be eating themselves into an early grave.  

Ways to immunise yourself from the malicious influence of health fear-mongerers

At the end of the day, health fearmongering is bad for you and you should do what you can to immunise yourself from its malevolent influence. Journalists (and readers) need a better tuned fear-mongering radar to detect elements that are more likely to scare than inform readers. Some points to consider:

  • Are those risks presented in relative numbers? If something has ‘doubled’ or ‘increased by 70%’ then ask, double what?  What is the absolute risk that went up due to the thing we are told to fear?
  • Is this a real provable effect or an observation? Many of these fear stories are based on observational data and report associations NOT causation. Always ask: Are we seeing peanuts and elephants in the same place at the same time or did one likely cause the appearance of the other?  (i.e: how do we know whether the peanuts caused the elephants’ appearance or vice versa?)
  • What is the ‘prevalence’ of the fear-inducing thing? How likely is it to be widespread and common or rare and isolated?
  • Are we talking rodents or real people?
  • Cui Bono? Who stands to gain from stoking the fear? Are there celebrities interested in increasing viewership, a drug company keen on increasing sales or researchers trying to sell their particular view of the world behind this brand of well-placed fearmongering?

Overall, we need to recognize that fear sells; it attracts eyeballs and clicks and there are incentives to stoke worry.