In November 2016, someone in a Type 1 diabetes forum shared a story entitled, “The Whole World is Celebrating: Diabetes Vaccine Officially Revealed!” The story, posted on Nutrition Sumo, shared a picture of a needle with a green fluid. I didn’t recognize Nutrition Sumo, but I wondered if they had repackaged a story from a reputable news site. As an editor, I couldn’t risk missing out on a big story, so I clicked.
The date for the story was new. The article was about a legitimate research effort by Dr. Denise Faustman at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Faustman is trying to repurpose an old tuberculosis vaccine to stop Type 1 diabetes; she and her team were going to start clinical trials of the experimental treatment.
So far, so good. But the news didn’t quite match the title, which implied that officials had declared that a vaccine for diabetes had been discovered. Also, the article cited an announcement from the 75th Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association, which took place a year and a half earlier than the article had been published. The whole thing felt more than a little off.
On a hunch, I Google-searched the title in quotes, and found that that phrase was used for many other articles by similar-looking sites. About half of the articles were nearly identical in title, image, and text to the Nutrition Sumo article. Some, though, had roughly the same title, but different text. These articles described a research effort in Mexico that was also being touted as a cure for diabetes. This treatment involved injecting one’s own blood back into one’s body to boost the immune system. A quick Google search yielded that the fact-checking site Snopes.com dissproved this “cure” by citing a Spanish-language newspaper report in which the Mexican Ministry of Health declared the treatment a fraud.
Just because a story isn’t true, however, doesn’t mean it dies on the internet. There are still several sites which are running news of the Mexican diabetes vaccine, without any corrections to indicate the story is false. Some stories even run a hybrid story which mixes up facts of the two different articles.
The sites that posted these two different stories shared many similar characteristics, beside a shared affinity for inaccurate hyperbole. These common characteristics can help readers determine the credibility of similar “health news” sites.
Such sites often have:
- Aggressive pop-up ads as soon as you land on the site
- A difficult user experience, as the articles are buried beneath too many ads or the ads move to take up your screen
- Miracle-sounding cures for other health conditions
- Broken links for sources, or links to similar-sounding sites with the exact same articles
- A non-existent “About Us” section or an “About Us” section which doesn’t tell you anything concrete
- Writing which is filled with obvious grammatical errors or typos
- Warnings that you need to update your computer’s programs or web browser
Not every site which has one or two of these characteristics is a scam (Insulin Nation has been known to have a broken link or two, and our grammar is far from perfect). However, if you read an article that sounds too good to be true, keep these characteristics in the back of your head. When you’re done reading an article, try to find out more about the publisher, click on the source of the news, or see if you can find a mainstream publication which backs up the claim. If those efforts fail, you’ve probably fallen victim to clickbait.
If you find a scammy site, don’t share the article, even as a joke (you’ll notice we didn’t share the links). Instead, warn others to avoid the site without providing a link to it. Your efforts might spare someone else the disappointment you just experienced.
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