Health News in the Social Media Echo Chamber

From the lecture series: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

Social media often creates an echo chamber, where messages are amplified by a culture of “liking” or “unliking,” where popular content is often based solely on skimmed content. When we outsource our information to the “so-called” wisdom of crowds, this fails to make social media a reliable or balanced source of information. So why is the social media echo chamber particularly dangerous when it comes to health information?

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Health information is readily available online, but accurate information often gets lost in the social media echo chamber. Links on Facebook or other social media sites can be a starting point for your health news, but to find accurate information, follow up on those links by looking at well-established articles from major newspapers and articles on truly authoritative health sites.

Good Sources of Health Information

Good examples can be found via legitimate organizations, such as U.S. government-maintained health sources, like one from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Both are reliable and often provide extensive links to the best references. All of the web address will end in .gov, like cdc.gov or nih.gov. You can also depend on the websites of large professional health organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Health-related nonprofit organizations, like the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American Diabetes Association (ADA) have extensive information available on their websites. Also, consider reviewing information from other authorities across the globe, like European health agencies or the World Health Organization (WHO). Their materials may provide a unique and eye-opening point of view. Consider websites maintained by large universities and colleges, state health information sites, and health reporting, especially from large or national media newspapers and websites. But, even from these recommended sites, you should always maintain some healthy skepticism. What’s most important is the evidence—what the science says—not who’s saying it.

Learn more about the media’s take on mental health

Distortion of Good Information

Ben Goldacre, a British physician and journalist, has pointed out another way that journalists often distort health information. Years ago, in what he has referred to as “the golden age of medicine,” miracle cures and new breakthroughs were being routinely discovered; while at the same time, scientists were uncovering significant health risks that affected millions: Lead in gasoline, smoking, or the ill-effects of the overuse of X-ray radiation. Until the 1950s, fluoroscopes emitting huge radiation doses were routinely used in shoe stores, and well into the 1970s, doctors routinely smoked in front of their patients.

These fields have been making modest, incremental understandings about risk factors … but there isn’t one big boogeyman that is the main cause of issues.

But now, in the decades since, science and medicine have been moving at a slower clip. These fields have been making modest, incremental understandings about risk factors for, such as, obesity or heart disease, but there isn’t one big boogeyman that is the main cause of issues. Likewise, new medical breakthroughs for diagnoses and cures tend to be for a specific, somewhat rare disease. There hasn’t been an influential new class of miracle drugs discovered recently, as compared to the development of antibiotics and vaccines last century.

But journalists like to keep their stories entertaining, so modest, incremental research is often kind of shoe-horned into an old-school template of “miracle cure” or “hidden killer.” A good reminder is that certain headline words should tip you off that a story is likely an exaggeration. Words like “miracle”, “wonder”, or “magic”—especially when referring to a drug or cure—or negative words like “killer”, “destroy”, or “ruin”, are there to grab your attention, but they are almost always exaggerations.

Learn More: Alternative Medicine in the News

Danger of Focusing on Outliers

One more “big picture” observation about the way the media landscape can distort reality can tip you off that the story is distorting facts. Popular stories often focus on the outliers, or the freaky events, and make them seem more common than they are.

In November 2008, Ronald Ball bought a Mountain Dew soda from a vending machine at his job. He claimed that he became violently ill after he started to drink it, and found a dead mouse in the can. His lawsuit was widely publicized and was eventually settled. That story made headlines all over the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that millions of people heard or read it. But stop and think about it: Each day, worldwide, 1.2 billion cans of soda are consumed. Even if that one mouse story were true—and who knows if it was—the chance of finding a mouse in your soda is unbelievably small.

In journalism circles, the reporting of unusual, infrequent events is far more common than the reporting of ordinary events; sometimes it is called the “man bites dog” aphorism. In short: No one reports when a dog bites a man. That’s common. But “man bites dog” is news that’s considered worth reporting.

Young boy receiving vaccination immunisation by professional health worker
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A more serious example: Let’s say a child receives a routine vaccination and then something scary, bad, or unexpected happens. The child might be diagnosed with cancer a few weeks later or might have a seizure. On social media channels, that event is likely to be reported, tweeted and retweeted, and appear and reappear through sharing on Facebook and other sites. But what’s not reported are the hundreds of millions of children who didn’t have any kind of issue after their vaccines.

Just because something happened after a vaccine, we don’t know that the two things are related. Children do get diagnosed with cancer—that’s not so infrequent. Over 10,000 new cases of cancer in children occur each year in the United States. Some of them, by chance, will have had a vaccine, a new medication, or some other medical interactions in the weeks before their diagnosis. Maybe those events are connected, but maybe not. On the internet, scary reports of rare things happening are repeated and amplified, but the information doesn’t do a particularly good job of providing context, or of proving that two things are related.

Americans know, by and large, that mass media can’t always be trusted. A 2016 Gallup poll revealed that only a third of people have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media. In a recent Harvard poll, 65% of Americans believe the media routinely publishes fake news. Still, traditional media remains a significant source of news and information. Even among young adults—who rely proportionally more on social media for news—nearly half of them read a newspaper at least once a week, and three-quarters of them watch traditional news on television.

Learn more about infections reported in the headlines

Should We Trust Mass Media?

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Sometimes, social media and traditional media work together to amplify and broadcast a health story. Sometimes, however, they’re manipulated for commercial gain. In 2014, news outlets were positively giddy with headlines like this one: “Melbourne Mum Belle Gibson Taking the World by Storm with Her App The Whole Pantry, While Fighting Terminal Brain Cancer.” That’s a long headline, and it was followed by the subhead “Five years ago, this young Melbourne mum was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given four months to live. She then started a global health and lifestyle empire.” The article went on to say that “Gibson is a 26-year-old with many labels—young mum, cancer survivor, wellness warrior, and social media sensation.” Further down in the article, it said, “When conventional medicine let her down, she turned to alternative therapies and confounded doctors.” Dozens of articles with a similarly glowing tone can be found from that year. 

With that information, who wouldn’t root for Belle Gibson? Here was a young woman fighting for her life, who was also quite photogenic. She was a fighter, defying doctors who told her she had months to live, and defeating cancer on her own terms. In interviews dating back to 2009, she said she had malignant cancers of her brain, blood, spleen, uterus, liver, and kidney, and that she treated these not with medicine, but with exercise, various alternative medicine modalities, and colonic irrigations.

But the biggest part of her lifestyle change was a special, healthier diet, including recipes she posted on Instagram under the name “@healing_belle.” These recipes became the basis for what became a wildly popular smartphone app, The Whole Pantry. She even made a deal with Apple to feature her app as a built-in, preloaded part of the new Apple Watch when it was first introduced. The icing on the cake was Ms. Gibson stating that a large part of the proceeds from the app and a pending book deal would be donated to charity. 

Once the news got out that she hadn’t been truthful about her charitable donations, it was quickly revealed that there were holes in her cancer story, too.

Then, it all fell apart. In March 2015, multiple media outlets revealed that though Ms. Gibson had claimed to have donated $300,000 to charity in 2014, only $7,000 could be verified. Charities that Ms. Gibson had claimed to be working with said they’d never heard of her, and certainly didn’t get any donations. Once the news got out that she hadn’t been truthful about her charitable donations, it was quickly revealed that there were holes in her cancer story, too. Her health history, it turned out, was a fraud.

Cosmopolitan had awarded Ms. Gibson its “Fun, Fearless Female Award” in 2014. The magazine ran a story with a very different tone, titled, “An Honest Account of Our Experience with Belle Gibson,” subtitled “The whole country is currently getting their heads around claims that her career is built on lies. Us included.” The Cosmo article is a well-written, introspective story that explains how the magazine and so many other media companies were duped by a young woman with a compelling story that everyone wanted to believe. For years, no one bothered to check it out.

Gibson experienced a rapid and negative backlash on social media. Her accounts, blog posts, and Facebook profiles were quickly pared down and then deleted to remove her fraudulent claims, but it was too late; the internet wasn’t about to forget what she had said. With her support collapsing, in an April 2015 interview, she admitted, “None of it’s true.” Many people, bloggers, and mainstream media writers alike have since criticized Gibson for putting people with cancer in danger by suggesting they abandon medical therapy in favor of dietary changes. But the strongest criticisms were about betrayal: We trusted you, we rooted for you, and you lied to us. There’s a lesson there for journalists, but also bloggers and those active in social media. We may tolerate exaggerations and even silliness, like those reports about the couple who could survive without food. But deliberate, bare-faced deceit crosses a line. People do expect at least some truth in their news.

Learn more about how the media exerts a powerful effect on our concepts of food, diet, and health

Common Questions About Health News Through Social Media

Q: Is social media good for health care?

Yes and no. When it comes to health care, social media is good for sharing data, developing credibility, and building a network. For patients, social media helps them to find better clinics through reviews and speaking online with other patients. However, social media can be harmful when people fall for health fads or sensational headlines instead of listening to their doctor.

Q: Do doctors use social media?

Around 90% of doctors use social media to stay connected with personal and professional contacts, as well as to discover information that is relevant to their field.

Q: Are Media Doctors real doctors?

Media Doctor is an Australian website created for a type of peer review system where health practitioners review relevant articles to their occupation.

Q: Does social media use lead to health problems?

Heavy social media consumers are more likely to have less sleep, anxiety disorder, depression, and problems with procrastination than those who do not use social media as frequently.

This article was updated on July 1, 2020

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