Insight on stem cells and stem cell research in fake news

Misinformation and exaggerated claims found in online fake news stories can confuse the public, increase polarised views, and potentially impact government policies. The stem cell research community in particular should be aware of public opinions, as there is an abundant amount of misinformation about the benefits and risks of stem cell research. The recent study by Blake Murdoch and colleagues investigates how stem cells and stem cell research is being portrayed in news stories found on Internet domains (websites) known to promote fake and dubious news and identifies current trends in the themes and content of these stories.

What background and points are discussed?

Mr Murdoch and his associates utilised the “OpenSources” project to identify  “fake news” and “junk science” Internet domains that have presented articles related to stem cells and stem cell research. The OpenSources project is a constantly updated database developed by Dr Melissa Zimdars, which identifies news sources with fake, false, biased, conspiratorial and misleading news stories. The authors searched for news articles discussing stem cells published between 2015 and 2016, ultimately finalizing 185 relevant articles on twenty-two websites. The authors’ analysis of these 185 articles shows that stem cells and stem cell research are generally presented in relation to: science and research (unrelated to cloning), therapies to treat diseases/ailments, products or substances for health promotion or anti-aging, and ethical, legal and/or social issues. Furthermore, the analysis shows that over 60% of the articles portray stem cells as beneficial in some way, while 26% of articles portray stem cells or stem cell research as harmful. Of the 42 articles with a theme raising ‘ethical, legal and social issues’, 25 of them emphasise unethical research. There is also a strong emphasis in many of the ‘ethical, legal and social issue’ articles on harmful actions/policies by the government (16 articles), harmful actions by other groups/corporations (15 articles) and religious references (11 articles). These types of articles might help to create unwarranted fears, mistrust around scientific practices or government initiatives related to stem cells and stem cell research. Another common theme on these websites is the suggestion that natural products are much safer and more effective than conventional medical treatments and that the medical industry doesn’t want patients to know about them. Mr Murdoch and colleagues also examine which specific procedures, research, or activity are discussed in relation to stem cells. The primary topic is cancer (53 articles), followed by topics of growing and fixing body parts (41), health related to diet (35), growing new or extinct animals (24) and reversing aging (22). Ninty-one articles (58%) reference a journal, institution or author that reported the initial findings. Again, the coverage given to the science appearing in academic journals often appeared to be problematic. The authors’ analysis reveals that many websites promoting fake news retell the same (or very similar) content in multiple articles, sometimes with almost the exact same wording. Another trend in the articles is the prominence of links to articles or websites hosted by other fake news Internet domains. This abundance of links between fake news Internet domains builds the impression that articles are referencing a diversity of sources to support their story. The authors also speculate that these links may serve as a collaborative effort to generate more viewer activity and revenue. Of particular interest is that sometimes a single Internet domain may have articles that promote the benefits of stem cells with exaggerated statements while also hosting articles that promote fear about stem cells or cast doubt on research efforts.