Communication Currents

Anonymity and Health Messages

June 1, 2007
Health Communication

Throughout the course of each day we are exposed to countless health messages. News stories explain the results from recent medical studies, commercials tout the latest pharmaceuticals, and public service announcements encourage us to take action to improve our health. One place many people turn to make sense of all of these health messages is the World Wide Web. Despite the increasing number of people venturing online for medical purposes, many face difficulties evaluating the quality of the health information that they encounter.

Researchers at the Pew Internet and American Life Project estimate that, as of 2006, around 113 million Americans have used the Internet for health purposes. Widespread use of the Internet and Web has prompted many health organizations, ranging from the National Library of Medicine to the American Medical Association, to create guidelines specifically for those people attempting to acquire medical information and those creating websites with health content. One thing listed in most of the guidelines for Web use is to identify and evaluate the source of the information. Web users should pay close attention to who the author is and try to determine his or her qualifications to address a health topic.

Despite these guidelines, recently published research in the Journal of Applied Communication Research suggests that Web users do not critically evaluate the health information they find online. A researcher in the Department of Communication at the University of Arizona examined Web users' evaluations of anonymous sources on health websites. Anonymity is used in testimonials and stories from those afflicted or cured by some medicine or condition, on health-related message boards, and on sites offering advice. Anonymous sources include those individuals whose name is obviously fake (e.g., “BearsFan3000”), partially absent (e.g., “Jamie in Tucson”), or concealed (e.g. “Anonymous”). Anonymity may serve important functions for a message source by making it possible to talk about embarrassing or stigmatized topics, such as sexual or mental health. An anonymous source, however, may also pose serious problems for those trying to find health information. A person's name and title can offer critical information about his or her qualifications and credibility. Without knowing the source's identity, it is difficult to evaluate the merit of his or her message.

The study examined the credibility and persuasiveness of anonymous sources in health information on the Web. Participants in the study read a health article that included facts and described an individual's experience with bacterial meningitis or genital herpes. The article was attributed to “Pat Thomas” in one version and “Anonymous” in the other. After reading the article, the participants completed a questionnaire in which they rated the credibility and persuasiveness of the source and article.

The results of the study revealed several interesting findings. Although the guidelines created by health organizations suggest that an anonymous source should be rated as less credible and less influential than an identified source, the anonymous and identified sources in this study were rated the same. The anonymous source was rated to be as credible and persuasive as the identified source. In addition, ratings for both anonymous and identified sources suggested both were perceived to be fairly highly credible and persuasive. One explanation for these findings is that participants gave the anonymous source the benefit of the doubt. The participants were aware that the source was anonymous, but did not see anonymity as a problem. Because they had no reason to question the source's motivations or credentials, participants assumed that the anonymous source had good intentions.

The findings from this study have important implications for individuals using the Web for health purposes as well as health practitioners. First, the results show that lapses in critical information seeking can and do occur. As such, it would be worthwhile for all who use the Web to acquire health information to become more familiar with a series of things that should be evaluated, including: finding out who the author is, what makes him or her credible, whether the information has been reviewed by a health professional or (preferably) a board of medical experts, when the information was last reviewed or updated, and if the author or website has any conflict of interest (e.g., the author or website stands to make money from the information, as is the case with websites operated by pharmaceutical companies). Information seekers should also evaluate the website's privacy policy statement, which explains the types of information collected about site visitors and how such information is used by the organization operating the website (including those instances when the information is shared with third-parties). Second, those involved in computer and Internet training, such as organizations like SeniorNet who operates computer training classes for older adults, should consider including a component in their training focused on teaching individuals how to locate and evaluate health information. In addition to explaining what information seekers should look for when evaluating websites, it is equally important to address potential pitfalls or problems with health information on the Web—such as when one encounters an anonymous source. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, information seekers should always consult with their health care provider before making decisions or taking action regarding medical information acquired online.

About the author (s)

Stephen A. Rains

University of Arizona

Assistant Professor