While it’s true that the Internet means that we’ve never had such a wealth of information at our fingertips, when it comes to medical advice the web can be a mixed blessing. The problem is that although the Internet can educate us, the unregulated nature of much of the content means that misinformation can have serious repercussions when it comes to people’s health.
Faced with long waits for a ten-minute appointment with their GP, it’s hardly surprising that more and more people are Googling their health concerns for a faster, more accessible solution. Marketers know this, and a lucrative industry of ‘natural’ treatments based on alternative medical advice has seen massive growth over the past ten years.
While there’s much to be said for nature-based treatments (many of them forming the basis for modern pharmaceuticals) there’s also a high risk of snake oil remedies that could do more to harm peoples’ health than good.
The infrastructure of the Internet allows medical misinformation to thrive. Browsers like Google keep a record of your search history, and this means that companies can use remarketing software to access this information for marketing purposes.
Social media companies like Facebook are well known for showing targeted ads in your feed based on your browsing history. The power of social media also means that information can be quickly shared amongst thousands of people, creating ‘trends’ that spread like wildfire.
Sophisticated marketing uses human psychology in order to sell us ‘cures’ for everything from weight loss to serious conditions like cancer. One of the most effective ways of promoting products is to discredit existing treatments. Recent high profile movements against standard medicine show how people can be drawn into online communities centered on misinformation and conspiracies.
One of the most virulent of these is the anti-vaccination or “anti-vac” movement, which has become so widespread that the World Health Organization is announcing it as a 2019 world health crisis. The volume of anti-vaccine sentiment on social media is sparking concern that it’s having a negative impact on immunisation rates in some countries.
Social media companies are facing increasing scrutiny over how they moderate content on their sites. In recent months, firms including Facebook have taken steps to address the problem. In a statement in March, Facebook said it was working to “tackle vaccine misinformation… by reducing its distribution and providing people with authoritative information on the topic”.
In May, Instagram – which is owned by Facebook – said in that it would block hashtags being used to spread “verifiably false” information about vaccinations. Meanwhile YouTube has stopped serving ads to a number of popular channels that promote anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Pinterest is the latest site to regulate its content by directing users searching for vaccine-related information to results from organisations including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centres for Disease Control and the WHO-established Vaccine Safety Net. The firm also said it won’t show ads, comments or recommendations on results pages for vaccine searches.
Although genuine complimentary treatments may have a useful role to play alongside traditional medicine, the term ‘natural’ has become big business. This means that marketers aren’t always responsible about how they use the word to promote products. What constitutes a ‘natural’ product is open to debate, and many of these products contain ingredients that aren’t subject to standardised testing. When it comes to web-based medical advice, people should be aware that falling foul of misinformation might not just hurt their pocket, but also their health.
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