Dr. Joseph Sirven: Fake Health News

Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2019 - 8:26am
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Dr. Joseph Sirven.

I asked my patient in the emergency room, “What’s going on?”

He said, “I stopped taking my medications!”

“What made you not want to take it? Were you having side effects? ”

“I started doing chiropractic manipulation of my shoulders, which stops my seizures.”

As non-judgmentally as I could, I responded, “where did you get the idea that a massage could control seizures?”

“Well, Twitter,” he said.

My patient is lucky. He managed to not die as a result of taking advice that he had picked up on social media. But it brings up a bigger question, how frequently does this happen?

According to two recent articles published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, this is happening a lot. Twitter and other social media tools have taken over as the go-to source for health information for a large swath of the population.

The problem is that a lot of health-related social media posts are just plain wrong.

Scientists define fake health news as a health-related claim of fact that is currently false due to a lack of scientific evidence. Recent examples of the phenomena is the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, the hostility against healthcare workers during the 2014 Ebola outbreak and a recent analysis which shows that the public read more inaccurate posts regarding the Zika virus outbreak than accurate ones.

Researchers suggest a number of reasons why fake health news is on the rise.

First, it’s very easy and inexpensive to publish information on Twitter or Facebook and consumers can easily choose to read what they want rather than understand the context and nuance of a health issue. So if I want to find side effects of a given treatment, social media will find countless examples of side effects regardless if it’s true.

Second, the sheer volume of information on social media means that if enough people like some random fact, that fact may be interpreted as correct because if enough people like something, it must be right.

Fake health news is not a minor issue; it can hurt and, in rare cases, kill you. I tell my patients to always ask your doctor about social media posts they read and not assume it’s all true. In fact it’s best to assume that most health-related social media is false until proven otherwise just to be safe.

My patient in the ER joked with me that he wishes that you could smell social media posts like food. That way, good social media posts would smell good while bad ones would smell rotten!

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