Snake Oil or the real deal? How can you tell?
Astounding claims about healing illnesses through diet and alternative therapies are far from new. In the 1880’s, snake oil was peddled among railroad workers to reduce joint pain and inflammation. Today, with the ease of data transmission and social media, we are inundated with influencers, and even doctors, masquerading as “snake oil salesmen”, touting miracle cures for everything from athlete’s foot to Alzheimer’s.
The influencer economy has become a billion-dollar industry. This group of social media stars define themselves as in opposition to “experts.” Selectively, they combine elements from science, esoteric systems of knowledge, self-help and positive thinking. The advice given, which often comes at a commercial premium, appeals to common sense.
While there are practical recommendations to eat more fruit and vegetables, reduce stress and exercise regularly, there are also recommendations to purchase pseudoscientific protocols, “cleanses” and other services that offer quick fix – and usually expensive – solutions to complex problems.
There is no commitment among influencers to rely on independent testing procedures and results by objective, scientific methods.
Social media has altered how we are influenced. Influence is now measured (and compensated!) by followers and social engagement. A true expert may have credentials and years of experience, they are unlikely to be as compelling as a sexy lifestyle influencer with a curated social media feed to showcase and “verify” their advice. The issue here is not just about misinformation, but questionable tactics used to influence us and gain our trust.
Lack of Trust?
Our trust in lifestyle gurus seems to be a response to the public’s confidence crisis in institutions and medical professionals. With so much information available to us at our fingertips, we now live in a skeptical society. To capitalize on this, social media gurus position themselves as “alternative” authorities – many without experience nor credentials – working outside of the established system.
While in the past, food corporations and governments have acted unethically, experts have gotten things very very wrong, and lobbyists have influenced politics and research, problems arise when the general public blindly accepts influencers’ views as being superior.
For Better or for Worse?
Social media has democratized information, it has also confounded issues around trust and credibility through altering how we seek advice and how we decide what to believe. Our current wellness culture on social media is so damaging because it’s fear based and perhaps contributing to mental health issues.
I’ll be writing more about this topic in the future, but for right now, here are some steps you can take to start better educate yourself and to evaluate sources.
What to do?
- Limit your reliance of social media as your source of wellness information
- Evaluate your sources (here’s a start – https://www.doaj.org/ and https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/)
- Gain an understanding of correlation vs. causation (https://humanbiology.pressbooks.tru.ca/chapter/1-7-pseudoscience-and-other-misuses-of-science/)
- Seek out reputable resources, sites, experts (here’s a start https://www.healthevidence.org/default.aspx and https://www.sciencedaily.com/ )