Friday, December 19, 2014

Danger of Social Media

Social media is capable of spreading misinformation as quickly as solid facts.  Not only that, but it spreads this misinformation at greater speeds and breadth than ever before.  It behooves everyone, therefore, to be extra alert, cautious and skeptical.  Unfortunately, Americans have not learned this lesson.  This lack of care and skepticism is shown by the very fact that misinformation spreads so widely.

A couple of examples came up this month.  This first is in a report from NBC that begins, “Hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Have you ever heard of it? The Internet sure has.”  It goes on to say that the use of this procedure that exposes patients to 100% oxygen at greater than atmospheric pressure, at $2000 per treatment, is becoming more common “for treating autism, infant brain trauma, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, cerebral palsy and many other conditions,” which lately include PTSD and traumatic brain injury for veterans.  The trouble is that there is no solid evidence that it works.

They cite a recent JAMA Internal Medicine study on its effectiveness for treating some veterans with PTSD finding that benefits were not a result of the therapy but the placebo effect.  “Those in the tanks felt better because they really wanted to believe they would feel better even when they just breathed room air.”  Belief in remedies can be powerful even when the remedies themselves are no better than sugar pills.  Furthermore, self-reporting is also suspect due to this placebo effect along with many other psychological factors.  That is why we shouldn’t, but often do, take at face value the testimonials of friends, neighbors, social media contacts, or celebrity spokespersons – or even our own experience.

The second example was news that Pope Francis told a young boy that his pet went to heaven.  Pets going to heaven was good news, something almost everyone wants to believe.  It spread quickly, even on the mainstream media.  Unfortunately, that’s not quite what he said.  The New York Times “acknowledged its mistake, saying in a correction on Friday that it had misattributed the remark by Paul VI to the current pope.”  Pope Francis did not make any comments about animals.  It was all a misinterpretation by an Italian reporter that spread with elaboration.  (Later in the month a picture of the Pope circulated on Facebook with a quote about not having to believe in God.  According to a quick check of the Snopes website, “there is no proof for the claim that Pope Francis said it.”)

Whether pets are admitted to heaven or hyperbaric treatment cures PTSD is not an immediate problem in most cases.  These are just current examples, but other misinformation can seriously affect your wallet and your health.  The latest trends catch on based on celebrity endorsements and Internet chatter with no science required.  Think about how foods that would not naturally contain gluten are now labeled gluten-free based on a fad of self-diagnosis.  Think how many foods carry the meaningless label of “all natural” just to attract uniformed buyers.  These may make a dent in the wallet, but far more serious is the bad health advice, such as avoiding vaccinations, taking supplements for serious conditions, turning down proven cures for home remedies or ancient natural alternatives with no track record except the misperception that “ancient” or “Chinese” always means good, safe and effective.  Companies and individuals can get their reputations savaged as the unchallenged stories of misdeeds or dangerous products spreads like wildfire.  As I mentioned last time, a check of original sources is often all it takes to find that a posting about dangers or magical cures is based on incomplete evidence.  Taking the better-safe-than-sorry approach on everything leaves us unwilling to even cross the street.

There have always been dangers associated with not being skeptical, being too credulous or accepting.  Years ago the locals would give money to the traveling medicine man only to find out too late that they had been cheated.  Today we encounter the same interaction many times a day on the Internet, social media, magazines, and the news.  Critical thinking, a skeptical attitude, is more important than ever to protect ourselves against not only cheats and conmen, but also against sneaky advertisers and our naïve neighbors who “like” and repost unproven and unprovable “facts” without doing any investigation. 

Update December 21:  Two days after publication, I became aware of a move by the American Dental Association (ADA) to spend $500,000 to counter the increase of inaccurate information on the Internet posted by groups that try to influence communities to ban drinking water fluoridation.

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