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Given the current distrust of the American healthcare system – a system in which prescription drugs are wildly inflated in price and a single hospital stay might bankrupt you if you don’t have the right insurance – it’s perhaps no surprise that people are turning to social media for medical advice. In the same way that people trust their friends and colleagues to give them advice about which brand or product to buy, they are now apparently trusting these same friends and colleagues to give them medical advice. That’s just plain dangerous.
Vaccines and social media
The easiest place to see this dynamic play out in real life involves vaccines. On one hand, you have the medical establishment, which has made it seem like an ironclad law of nature that you must get vaccinations and flu shots on a regular basis, starting from the time you’re a newborn baby. And, on the other hand, you have a growing number of people who believe that the medical establishment is trying to trick them into buying unwanted prescription drugs or getting vaccinations or shots that might end up doing more harm than good. These so-called “anti-vaxxers” claim that vaccines are responsible for a whole host of medical problems in the modern world (such as autism), even at the same time that a number of once dormant diseases (such as measles) seem to be making a comeback.
The problem is that, on social media, all sorts of false, misleading and just plain wrong health information is free to proliferate without any safeguards in place. On Facebook, for example, a group called “Stop Mandatory Vaccinations” now has 139,000 members. And these members are very vocal about doling out free medical advice to others. They are advising people not to get shots or vaccinations, and it’s easy to see how this could go horribly, horribly wrong, One high-profile case, for example, involves a Colorado mother who was told not to get a Tamiflu prescription for her ailing four-year-old child. But within days, the child had died of flu. It turns out that all the advice about spurning the medical establishment and relying on homeopathic medicine to cure the flu resulted in the death of an innocent child.
The coronavirus “hoax”
And it’s not just the world of vaccinations where false medical information and hoaxes can proliferate. The biggest medical debate on social media right now is whether the coronavirus (aka “the Wu Flu”) is real or not, and whether Americans really have anything to worry about. Some people say it’s all fake news coming out of China, and that all the video clips showing people being dragged from their homes by people in medical masks or collapsing in the streets have been doctored to get viral views on social media. They say that there’s no possible way that China is quarantining hundreds of millions of people. It seems surreal that China is bulldozing roads around major cities to prevent people from fleeing or spraying entire cities using drones. They say that the media is just sensationalizing things in order to get clicks and views. And, worst of all, some conspiracy theorists are using social media to tell anyone who will listen that the coronavirus is just a giant government hoax, and that Big Pharma is just waiting in the wings to sell us an expensive vaccine (Big Pharma to the rescue!).
The big takeaway in all this, of course, is that social media is not your doctor. Sure, it’s worth taking a look at what people are saying on social media, especially if you have a medical condition and are looking for a sense of community to help get you through a difficult spot. Cancer survivors, for example, should be free to share and exchange information about what worked – and what didn’t – for them, even if treatment is outside the realm of traditional medicine. However, at the end of day, the big social media platforms like Facebook have a responsibility to prevent false information, fake news and outright hoaxes from spreading. Bad ideas – just like diseases – can go viral far too easily, with possibly deadly consequences.