When Clickbait Kills

Some articles have been making the rounds on Facebook about a new study on the effects of flu shots on pregnant women. The headlines are bold:

Miscarriages Linked to Flu Vaccine

Annual Flu Shots Linked to Increased Risk of Miscarriage

Alarming Study Links Flu Shot with Early Miscarriage

Could Flu Shots Lead to Miscarriage?

What the Study Actually Said

The articles were based on a study that compared 485 women who had miscarriages to 485 who did not. Of those that had miscarriages, 17 had received the flu vaccine within 28 days of the miscarriage and also had been vaccinated the year before. Of those that did not, 4 received the flu shot both years.

If you expand the window beyond 28 days, the difference disappears. If you look at only one year of receiving the flu vaccine, the difference also disappears.

The authors also conducted the same analysis on prior years and did not find any connection. There have also been numerous previous studies that have found no connection between flu vaccines and miscarriages.

Should You Be Scared?

The authors tried to explain what could have caused this outlier of an outcome. Most likely, the finding could be based on the random noise that happens when you conduct studies with a small sample size. If that is the case, then the results were a statistical anomaly and there is actually is no connection between the flu shot and miscarriage at all.

The authors also speculated that it could be something about the particular type of vaccine, because the pattern only occurred in women who received the same H1N1 vaccine two consecutive years after the 2009 swine flu pandemic. If that is true, then there is no issue for the current round of flu vaccines.

In their conclusion, the authors called for more study on this particular issue, but said that this one study was no reason to change the current recommendation that pregnant women receive the flu shot.

The Danger of Clickbait

The flu is extra dangerous for pregnant women. They are more likely to be hospitalized, get pneumonia, and die than non-pregnant women with the flu. The flu also increases the risk of miscarriage, birth defects, and premature births. A flu shot is also the best way to protect the baby after it is born, as infants in their first 6 months are much more likely to be killed by the flu.

Those facts are not conveyed in click-bait headlines. And usually not in the articles that follow.

Instead, you are given the distinct impression that the flu shot will make you more likely to miscarry. This, obviously, will leave most readers with the belief that pregnant women should avoid flu shots.

When Shallow News Coverage Hurts Real People

We can’t know for sure what the impact of these articles will be, but my assumption is that fewer women will get flu shots after seeing them.

This means that more women will be at risk for the flu. More women will be hospitalized. More babies will be born premature or with birth defects. More women will die.

All for no reason other than fear-mongering headlines and articles that misinterpret a study against the explicit language of the authors of the study.

What You Can Do

I don’t have a society-wide solution for stopping harmful clickbait and misinformation.

I do have some tips for making sure you and your loved ones don’t fall victim to it.

Find Sources You Trust. Facebook and Twitter are great for sharing stories with your friends. However, passively allowing news to come to you means that you are not necessarily getting the most trustworthy sources. We learned this most painfully during the last election season.

The fact that some piece of information comes from a source you don’t know or trust doesn’t mean it is wrong. It does mean that you should follow up by finding out whether a more trustworthy source supports this information. It only takes a minute or two to Google the key terms and figure out what more mainstream sources have to say on the topic.

Challenge Your First Take. Don’t assume that the first thing you read about an issue is the correct take on it. It is easy for us to give credibility to the first thing we read and discount later evidence that contradicts it. We may not even recognize that we are doing this. Keep your eyes and mind open for this phenomenon and watch out for believing the first thing you read.

Be Open to Changing Your Mind. This is related to the last point. Once we form an opinion, we naturally start defending that opinion against intrusion. This can be most easily demonstrated in the political realm, where it often feels that people twist themselves into all sorts of knots and ignore reality to hold tight to their positions. Be aware that this is our natural tendency and guard against it.

Always Read the Study! I’ve addressed this issue before, so I will point you to that. The short version is this: news organizations, blogs, and other forms of media are first and foremost trying to get your attention. That often means overstating the importance of individual studies or failing to put them in perspective. This means that you have to do your own research. You need to learn the nuance and context of any important issues on your own.

Most outlets lack the nuance necessary to provide a real understanding of an issue. Read the study. Do your own research.

Don’t let clickbait trick you into making bad decisions.

9 thoughts on “When Clickbait Kills”

  1. “Find sources you trust” – That’s the key, with so much information being distributed by so many sources it tough to tell what’s fact or fiction. Do your homework before just falling for a headline. Certainly something as serious as the flu and the health of your unborn baby warrants a little investigation.
    Brian recently posted…The Bucket ListMy Profile

    1. For sure. I am by nature an over-researcher, so the fact that this is even an issue was baffling to me. I guess when people see something posted by a friend they have a tendency to assume that their friend did the research. Definitely too important to pawn that responsibility off in a lot of situations.

      Thanks, Brian.
      Matt recently posted…Getting Better Results in Less TimeMy Profile

  2. ALWAYS read the study, y’all. I’m sick of getting into weird arguments with people who only read news headlines instead of the actual content itself. Writers are in the business of getting you riled up and interested in what they’re saying; it’s their job. We have to discern fact from fiction, especially in our world where anyone can publish *anything* online as truth.

    Also, get your vaccines.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…3 Steps to Align Your Money with Your ValuesMy Profile

  3. Investigate before sharing, seriously. For instance, I’ve seen all sorts of people share the study that said how anti-free speech college kids are in the last week or so. However, that study was seriously flawed…the participants were self-selected rather than randomly selected. 2016 studies with more vigorous show more tolerance for free speech (with 70-78% agreeing that respecting free speech was important), but this new one got all sorts of air time despite being flawed.

    (Of course, my favorite example of this was when my tea party aunt shared the Joss Whedon video endorsing Mitt Romney for president of the Zombie Apocalypse.)
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Tales of a Gardening Wannabe: Community Garden Plot EditionMy Profile

    1. Yes! I saw that one going around, as well. Everyone’s gotta start doing their research before sharing. People trust news when it comes from a friend. Maybe they shouldn’t, but the fact that they do means we all should take that responsibility seriously.

      Thanks, Emily.
      Matt recently posted…Getting Better Results in Less TimeMy Profile

  4. We are in such dangerous territory. Truth has lost all meaning. News has lost its meaning. Our elected officials have gotten over any trepidation they may have once had about telling easily disproved boldface lies. I often wonder about where this breakdown will lead, once enough people get to the realization that the institutions they once trusted can no longer be taken at face value. Where will we put our trust? Will whole new business categories emerge that are based on verifying things we once took for granted? I was just thinking today after reading all the Twitter bot stories how Twitter is going to have to offer some sort of new verification process that its human users will be able to tap into.

    1. I have had these same thoughts. Trust in media and trust in government had both fallen off a cliff before we elected an administration that repeatedly lies and then attacks the media for pointing out that they are lying.

      I am heartened to see that in recent polls trust in the media has started to recover, but we do appear to be in a post-truth society and I don’t know what that means going forward.
      Matt recently posted…Why You Should Ask WhyMy Profile

      1. Great comment and reply by you and Linda. It is scary when news has lost its meaning and people start doubting its veracity. I found myself reading things shared on FB and Twitter wondering whether it was true and see that they were from shadier sources. I would assume many do believe these stories, and maybe some of them are in fact true. I don’t know…it is scary. There was story where people were making lots of money writing false clickbait stories just to get the clicks and $$$.
        Not sure your policy on linking but you might find these articles to be a good read if you haven’t read them:

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