Is the health information on social media truly legit?

On my Facebook wall at the time of writing this piece, I searched for the words “cancer cure” and found a total of 20 posts; of which only four had any kind of factual basis. The rest had no grounding in science whatsoever; including one on “how eating lemons are better than chemotherapy in curing cancer” and the discovery of an “Australian berry which apparently can cure cancer in 48 hours”. Not forgetting of course, the conspiracy theory making its rounds on Facebook and WhatsApp that… “the cure for cancer has been found and is being suppressed by big pharma companies.”
Features such as these as well and others have become commonplace on our social media pages today; as evidenced by the search of my own daily feed. Today, social media has become one of the main ways for us to access any sort of information. The Digital News Report 2017 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University found that 58 per cent of Malaysians use Facebook while 51 per cent use WhatsApp as their main source to find, share or discuss news.
The availability of health information through social media has always been welcomed by the health fraternity, as it was thought social media would act as an information equaliser of sorts; allowing people who could easily get a lot of health information to now enjoy that much more access at a touch of a button via the Internet. Well…. that’s not been working out so well. The reason? One of the big problems with social media information is establishing the credibility of its information. While traditional media sources like television and the newspapers were always bound by laws to report the truth (or the truth as closely as they saw it), social media, as it began growing by leaps and bounds, was like the Wild Wild West. Anyone could post anything sort of information; and this quickly became the case, including where many people now found good business opportunities for buying and selling health products which are most times of unknown quality or efficacy— online. Add to this groups of ‘conspiracy theorists’, ‘new-age health’ proponents and other groups who shun ‘modern medicine’ and what you have via social media is a whole lot of health information which may or may not be true as seen by my own Facebook feed in which only 20 per cent of news was actually true.
We have now clearly established that there’s good health information and bad health information out there. So what, you may ask? The person reading the health information should be able to distinguish between true information which is credible or one that consist of pure nonsense. Shouldn’t they? That might be something which is very debateable. One very interesting study found that people found social media news sources to be more credible — trustworthy and thus, true—based on how much and how frequently it was updated; and its cognitive elaboration. Cognitive elaboration simply means the ability of a person to form associations between new information and prior knowledge they already have within their minds. This study simply meant that people trusted news on social media when it was updated more often and it jived with what information they already knew. In many cases, this has been used to manipulate and distort understanding and provide untrue health information to unsuspecting readers on social media; convincing them to do things which are both based in non-science and sometimes, pure nonsense.

A complete example is shown in the shark box above.
What can we do? To paraphrase a famous saying, “Seeing is most definitely not equal to believing.” Rather, health information or news which you get from social media should be checked to determine whether it is true or not. This can be done from the suggested resources in the box at the bottom. So next time you see a Facebook post or get a WhatsApp message on some health information that looks suspicious or too good to be true like “lemons cure cancer”, just stop one minute before you click the LIKE or SHARE button or forward it to another WhatsApp group. Verify whether it’s truly science or nonsense! – The HEALTH

Dr Murallitharan M. is a public health physician and the National Cancer Society of Malaysia medical director.
He can be reached by email at muralli at cancer.org.my or visit www.cancer.org.my.

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