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A User’s Guide to Fake (Cannabis) News

In this age of fake news and alternative facts, how do you distinguish the truth from lies?

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When we started biting our nails over the rise of AI, most of us assumed the incoming robot coup would be a little more exciting than bots lying about cannabis on Twitter. Dubious sources with warm blood and Wi-Fi have done just as much to pollute the discourse around the plant, too: It cures cancer, COVID-19 (coronavirus), it’s laced with fentanyl, Monsanto’s making GMO pot, and of course, every word from Alex Berenson’s mouth to start.

In an industry already rife with misinformation and lacking in widespread clinical research, how does anyone separate fact from fiction?

Defining “Fake News”

“When we use the term in papers, ‘fake news’ is news content that’s completely fabricated but presented as if it’s from a legitimate source… like the pope endorsing Trump,” says Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioral science at University of Regina and co-author of a recent paper on stopping the flow of bogus claims on social media.

“Fake news”, “false news”, “alternative facts” – plain old “lies” if you prefer to be straightforward – whichever rings true for you, Pennycook says it helps to draw a distinction between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation refers to any piece of info that, for one reason or another, is simply incorrect. Disinformation is deliberately false; including everything from phoney news websites meant to mimic real ones (like the now-defunct ABCnews.com.co, and anything else produced by Paul Horner), to “satire” sites with a questionable commitment to the medium. “Like a headline that’s presented as if it’s not a joke, but at the end of the article it says it’s ‘satire’,” explains Pennycook, adding that most readers only engage with headlines before sharing an article. In fact, one study indicated that a worrying amount of content shared between users on social media platforms hasn’t even been clicked.

“Alternative Facts” Hurting The Cannabis Community

While the cannabis community has perhaps one of the richest histories of what we’d now deem fake news (cue Anslinger and co.), modern myths and blatant lies about the plant have made for a colder reception as legalization dawns in many states.

Editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Endocannabinoid Medicine, Dr. Jahan Marcu says not a day goes by that he doesn’t scroll past some bold, disreputable claim making the rounds in headlines and shared posts. “Every day, I open any social media [platform] and there’s something new.”

Marcu says the conversation around cannabis has been so saturated with faulty information that some of the simplest truths about the plant have been twisted. “The biggest one is that CBD is non-psychoactive in how it stimulates cannabinoid receptors,” says Marcu, also the director of experimental pharmacology and behavioral research at the International Research Center on Cannabis and Health. He says many producers have taken liberties with the lack of scientific consensus on the subject of pot, and have contributed to an image of CBD being non-intoxicating and useful in everything from bottled water to acne creams. “I’ve seen so many graphics from the big companies that attribute the benefits of THC to CBD. If it’s altering your cognition in any way, it’s psychoactive.” Marcu points to the many consumers who’ve testified to feeling relaxed or relieved of their anxiety, saying any substance that makes those changes in the body can’t realistically be called “non-psychoactive”.

The say-anything culture around pot leaves the door open for all sorts of head games. “Another is ‘doobies make boobies’,” says Dr. Ian Mitchell, an emergency physician at Royal Inland Hospital in British Columbia and a consultant at Medical Cannabis Resource Centre who recalls a curious tactic by Canadian police as legalization reared its head up north. “Telling male students that growing breasts is a side effect of cannabis.”

Mitchell’s found himself rubbing his temples time and again over the willful ignorance and outright fabrication that permeates the culture; most recently taking slight at the Canadian Medical Association for signal-boosting the Trump-borne assertion that cannabis can be (and frequently, is) a vehicle for hard narcotics like fentanyl. “It’s never happened even once,” Mitchell assures. “They’ve had samples sent off… it’s a physical impossibility to lace cannabis with fentanyl [to get high]. Burning it incinerates the fentanyl entirely.”

Mitchell sees the effects of disinformation in all its shades when he discusses cannabis with patients. “People have been made to believe it causes lung cancer the way tobacco does, which is not supported by evidence.” Mitchell also calls out the attractive marketing ploy of the sativa/indica distinction, which famed cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo called the tactic “total nonsense and an exercise in futility”, urging the scientific community to drop the schtick altogether for the sake of progress and, in some cases, safety.

Higher up the chain of hogwash, the FDA was quick to point the finger at THC-containing vape products at the start of 2019’s vaporizer scare that left many Americans hospitalized, prompting a hasty generalization: “Do not use vaping products that contain THC”. The advice was soon after refuted when research indicated that vitamin E acetate found in shoddy vaping products was more likely the culprit for EVALI.

Cutting Through The Confusion

Pennycook says crowdsourcing has shown promise in stemming the stream of fake facts, with ongoing projects like the Blacklist that collect and curate sensationalist, often clickbait-ish headlines to promote discussion about them within the cannabis community. Assistant professor of media analytics and communication at Elon University, Dr. Kathleen Stansberry says such efforts can go both ways, however.

“Most user generated news sites rely on users both to submit stories and to police content, which means the content on a site is only as good as its users,” she cautions. The administrators of The Blacklist remain decidedly anonymous, which she says makes it difficult to discern any qualifications. “Based on the success of the site and accuracy of the news they share though; it appears they’re well-versed in the cannabis business.”

How To Recognize Fake Cannabis News

High Times spoke with the experts above to build an easy-to-use guide for telling fact from fiction when it comes to fake cannabis news.

1.      Be wary of police sources. “One way to know it [might be fake] is if it’s coming from police,” Mitchell advises. Conventional authorities have statistically had little issue with lying to dissuade cannabis use, so approach police sources with extra caution.

2.      Read beyond the headline. Easy though it is, don’t turn off your brain when scrolling through your choice of cannabis content. Read the content through till the end. Especially on social media, Pennycook says that when news content is mixed with pictures of dogs and food, it demands a less critical mindset that leaves space for that story about how CBD’s cured cancer to sneak in.

3.      Look for a GMP certificate on products. The spirit of fake news lives on in products that oversell their efficacy or don’t do proper testing. “At the minimum, try to find a GMP [Good Manufacturing Practice] certificate,” says Marcu. GMP designations show that a product’s been tested by third parties in a lab setting. “If they’re not doing research into their own products, they’re doing it on you, the consumer.”

4.      Investigate the author. “Most credible news sources have a byline,” Stansberry notes. If you can see who’s produced it, give their name a click and see what other sorts of stories they’ve published. If you can’t, that may be a red flag.

5.      Read laterally. One of the best tools against disinformation is what Pennycook calls “lateral reading”: “Check out the website, then see if other websites are confirming the same thing,” he suggests. “It’s hard to reconstruct a universe of information.” Take it from only one source, and you’re more likely to get duped.

6.      Look for scientific affiliations. With cannabis and its derivative products, Marcu suggests looking for “any company that has an institutional affiliation with scientific boards.” He says if a company doesn’t have a qualified medical advisor, they may not be holding their claims to evidence-based standards. “Use Google Scholar to see if any of these people are published in the field,” he says, stressing that peer-reviewed research is a must.

7.      Be aware of your biases. “Check your own biases, and be aware of what you bring to a story,” Stansberry says. Everyone has a pundit in their head, so remember they’re there and try to read the item as objectively as possible.

8.      Remember the golden rule. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true,” Mitchell says. Cannabis is many things; but to spare us all another snake-oil phase, consider that the sensational is often just that – sensationalized.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Sharon Letts

    March 9, 2020 at 2:22 pm

    Nice article, thank you. Saddened you mentioned “curing cancer,” as part of the fake news, yet did not expound on it – leaving the reader to think cannabis does not treat cancer, when in fact, it does. While cannabis does not “cure cancer, ” myriad studies, globally, combined with many anecdotal stories (including mine) have shown that cannabis is an antioxidant, creates homeostasis in the body, causes cancer cell death, and puts cancer into remission. Would be nice to have the “curing cancer” bit removed from the story, unless you are going to show absolute proof it does not. With great respect.

  2. Avatar

    Michael

    March 16, 2020 at 3:06 am

    Great article, love the style of writing. I Wholeheartedly agree with lateral reading and making sure different sources are saying the same things about cannabis. I’m working with an outlet called friendly aussie buds which are reporting on cannabis culture in general in Australia
    In the spirit of keeping everything transparent in media outlets, I would love to know your thoughts on our process down under and would be glad if you could let us know if we got anything wrong!

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