Social Media & Medicine Part 2: The Danger of Fake Health News On Social Media

Dr. Aaron Hartman

July 22, 2021

Fake news versus facts online

Social Media and Medicine Part 2: The Danger of Fake Health News On Social Media

Social media is telling you what you want to hear, but is it giving you misinformation?

It’s still social wellness month—and since it’s such a huge part of our social zeitgeist now, we’re focusing on social media! In Part 1 of our 3-Part blog series, we talked about how to use social media platforms for good. In Part 2, we’re talking about how social media and search engines use algorithms to keep you engaged—and might be feeding you fake health news or misinformation in the process.

Living in our current era has given us access to so much more information than in the past. We have seemingly endless knowledge right at our fingertips, and we put a lot of trust into social media (and the internet in general) to give us info that we know is correct.

But that trust is not necessarily warranted, and there is a lot of fake health news being spread across social media platforms and people’s lives.

The Goal of Social Media Algorithms: Benevolent or Bad Info?

Learning anything new always has a steep learning curve, and for me, learning how to use social media has been no different. When we first started to put up educational functional medicine articles and topics of interest on Facebook and Instagram, the themes were largely driven by conversations I had been having with patients in my clinic.

I naively thought that conversations with people on social media would flow naturally (or organically, to put it in online media terms). Someone might ask a question. I would use my expertise to answer it, and others who search for the same topics would naturally come to our social media landing page.

I had  lot of learning to do.

I knew that other people’s search terms would drive the flow of information. So, for example, using the term “COVID-19” would get more potential people interested in a post versus using the full name of the virus SARS-CoV-2. And I have long known that web searches often only uncover the most popular hits from other searches.

What I did not initially understand was that this was only one piece of the puzzle.

A bigger and more potentially influential way to get search results was artificial intelligence algorithms based on my personal previous searches. So, I am not just finding what others have found before me, but my search results also algorithmically give me what it is perceived that I want. Where this gets dicey is that items in my searches can be put higher in my search results at a price per click by sponsors.  Based on clicks, further algorithms will determine what will keep me engaged for longer on searches.

So, the ultimate goal of the algorithms is to keep me engaged, not get the answers I am looking for.

Doctor on his computer

The Medical Danger of Social Media Algorithms

In my professional opinion, the algorithms’ goal of feeding me information that it thinks I want to read in order to keep me engaged gets concerning when we are discussing searches for medical diagnoses and treatments.

When I personally do searches, I go to research articles on PubMed, UpToDate, or similar sources that are used by healthcare professionals. The average person does not have access to these (they require annual subscription fees) and the articles are technical. This leaves most people finding what others have found before them, what algorithms have determined will keep them engaged as long as possible on their device, or what is put before them by a paid advertiser, and this can often mean being fed fake health news or misinformation from dangerously unreliable sources. At best, readers are consuming outdated health information. At worst, they’re reading dangerous medical advice from unqualified sources—NOT the medical research articles that pop up first in my feed as a medical doctor.

This seems like a one-way ticket to a poor self-diagnosis and obtaining bad medical information in general.

How to Beat Social Media Misinformation

So how does one navigate this sea of potential misinformation and fake health news?

First, you should have a good relationship with your primary care provider. They become your first line of defense against misinformation. If you do not have one you trust, then you should find one.

Second, find honest, reliable sources online that are not just trying to ‘tickle your ears’, but are actually educating you about your health. Make sure to check the author’s credentials as a qualified health professional.

Lastly, never stop learning something new about yourself and the world around you. All learning is translatable. This means all learning helps future discoveries. Even learning Latin, will teach you how to think critically and evaluate things that at first seem foreign but later will become second nature.

One of our goals is to create a reliable resource for safe medical advice, information and interactive learning. If you would like to learn more, check out our website or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube and start interacting with us. Let us know what you would like to learn about, or are learning, and help us get you to a better place in your life and health.

Find out more about our online Functional Medicine patient membership community.

Stay tuned for our Social Media and Medicine Part 3 next week! We’ll be tackling anxiety, depression, and social media.
Since 2010, Richmond Integrative and Functional Medicine has been helping people to restore their health and hope with an integrative approach to conventional and alternative medicine that’s entirely science-backed. We at RIFM believe everyone is made for health. We offer a comprehensive, in-person patient membership program to ensure you get access to the care you need to thrive.


Don’t Miss Out

Sign up for our newsletter and be the first to know when Dr. Hartman posts a new article.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.