It sometimes feels like a tsunami. As social media becomes an integral part of our lives, scientific misinformation is being propagated at a faster rate than ever before. Videos, articles, memes, all cleverly designed to trick unsuspecting patients and consumers into thinking that their information has a grain of truth to them. Some are selling products directly, some are selling books or talks, and most are creating an environment of fear and mistrust of the medical system, which indirectly is used to sell various products and services.
So here are a few basic guidelines I want my patients to be aware of when trying to sift through what information is likely true and what is likely rubbish.
1) Look for the “store”
If you are reading something on a page that has a “store” button anywhere on it, it is likely that sales are driving the editorial policy of the website rather than any dedication to science. Supplements and herbal products are the usual products they sell, but these websites will sell just about anything that vulnerable patients will buy. They post information to create a disease or condition that needs treating from the products they sell, or just create a general mistrust of authority, which will result in higher long-term sales. Bottom line, if you see the “store”, it’s likely a terrible source of information.
2) Look for the buzzwords
Thankfully, most sites and sources with poor quality information give us a few obvious clues as to their motives. Many use the same marketing keywords that are designed to steer patients towards pseudoscientific treatments. In no particular order, these words are: natural, naturopathic, homeopathic, organic, toxins, detox, antioxidant, holistic, integrative, inflammation, functional, and wellness. There are hundreds more, but these are the main culprits. It is possible to be a reputable site and still use one or more of these words periodically, but when you see them, it should be a big red flag to be wary of the quality of information from that source.
3) Look at other information from the same source
Does every piece of information from the source follow the same basic narrative? Does the site that is telling you not to vaccinate your child also pushing 9/11 conspiracy theories? Does the chiropractor’s website telling you to go for routine adjustments also claim that doctors are maliciously hiding the cure for cancer? Sometimes it’s unfair to label all of an organization’s information as questionable based on one flawed belief or claim, but in many of these cases, if you do even a basic search, you will see that they have an agenda that goes well beyond that 2 minute Youtube video you just watched.
4) Look for citations
It’s too easy to make claims on the Internet without an ounce of solid evidence to back up those claims. If you encounter information that may change your beliefs on a certain topic, you need to spend ample time looking for whether proper studies have been done. A link to another questionable website or opinion piece does not count as reliable evidence. There is just too much of an incentive for quacks to spread misinformation that you cannot simply assume that all claims are equally deserving of your trust.
5) Ask a professional that you trust
There is nothing that I appreciate more than when a patient, friend, or family member, sends me a link to something that they want me to look over. Is it legitimate? Can it be trusted? In a time where ordinary citizens don’t have the time or expertise to sift through available reams of information, yet have tremendous access to both good and poor quality information, it is more important than ever to develop relationships with health professionals you trust. Professionals who can be looked to for critical analysis of any scientific topic, without bias or prejudice.
So go ahead, click on the link. Click on the video. But before you share it, or use it to guide you or your family’s health care journey, please apply these basic principles to decide whether it is likely accurate and trustworthy. We all need to play a role in ensuring that only high-quality information is propagated through our social network.