We all love to hear about the ‘next big thing’ but often social media makes claims that are more science fiction than science. Here’s how to be more discerning online.
What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve heard online lately?
Speaking to Body+Soul’s daily podcast Healthy-ish, cardiothoracic surgeon, author and TV presenter Dr Nikki Stamp says she has seen it all (and with her training she knows when it’s completely ludicrous).
“Celery juice regenerates your liver, any fad diet that claims to be special, ‘you can make your body more alkaline’….Vulva masks have been popular lately,” she tells host Felicity Harley of some of the most recent claims she’s heard, on the Healthy-ish episode Dr Nikki Stamp on spotting B.S. health advice on social media.
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“I’m like, oh my God. Like we don’t have enough issues around this already.”
The truth is that most of us are online constantly, and the amount of information we’re dealt even within one hour is enough to make your head spin. Who really has the time to go back and fact check every sentence?
Yet, it’s a reminder that this kind of dodgy information can have some tragic consequences.
“When I started to spend a bit more time on social media in the health space, the more I found just outright nonsense and sadly stories of people who had suffered really dreadful consequences,” Dr Stamp says.
“We’ve all been very aware of Mel Gibson’s story. It’s not uncommon to see items in the news about people using remedies that they found online for skin conditions, dangerous diets, disordered eating, and at the moment, anti-vaccination sentiment.”
“There is a study that says most of the misinformation around COVID-19 has come from 12 people predominantly. That’s crazy, right?” she adds.
With the viral nature of the internet, just one person disseminating bad advice has the capacity to hurt or injure many, many more. And the truth is, we’re not very good at discerning the difference between good and bad information.
“Most of us will access and continue to access the Internet, whether it be a Google search or social media for our health information, but the accuracy is really low. Some studies put it as low as 20 percent of what we read is legit. So, we actually need to work out ways to try and mitigate some of that risk,” she adds.
For Dr Stamp, this is an issue very close to her heart as it largely affects women. She says that women tend to be more disenfranchised by health care systems and are also the biggest consumers and practitioners of alternative medicine. This creates the perfect hot bed for BS to thrive.
“I think it’s very important that we protect ourselves, protect each other from the dangers of medical misinformation on social media.”
So what are her tips to sort the wheat from the chaff?
Check their qualification
In Australia you can check most practitioner’s qualifications online and are able to see what they’ve studied.
Confirm their registration
As a practitioner in Australia you need to maintain your registration. Check that the professional hasn’t been de-registered in any way.
Make sure they’re talking in their lane
A GP talking in depth about nutrition or a nutritionist talking about exercise is a bit of a red flag. Dr Stamp says a good practitioner will defer to someone else if it’s outside their wheelhouse.
Most of the time there will be a reference to the company who paid for the ad if the expert has received compensation for their involvement. Not always, but it can sometimes mean the information has been influenced.
Anecdotes vs science
A good practitioner will clearly differentiate an anecdote ‘this happened to me, or I saw this’ against clinical evidence that has been peer reviewed – so you can clearly see where this information is coming from and whether it’s backed by mass scientific investigation.
Look for links to the study or further footnotes that confirm what the expert is saying is true.
It’s not too good to be true
If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Check it against other sources on the internet, look for the opposite opinion and how valid that might be. If someone is saying something can ‘cure all things’ it’s probably BS.
If you do find out you’ve been privy to some bad advice online, don’t worry – it happens to us all and is quite common. Good job for getting to the bottom of it.
“I want to say that if you feel like you’ve been duped by someone, like don’t don’t be hard on yourself. Right? It’s not you,” says Dr Stamp.