You can’t believe everything you read online.
But in the age of social media, the line between fact and fiction isn’t always easy to determine.
An Australian blogger, Belle Gibson, was recently fined more than 410,000 Australian dollars ($320,000) for misleading the public with claims she had cured her own cancer.
Gibson said she had healed her multiple cancers, including terminal brain cancer, by eating whole foods.
Gibson also went on to publish a book, “The Whole Pantry,” and a corresponding smartphone app.
Her social media empire and the sales of her book and smartphone app earned Gibson AU$420,000.
It was then revealed by authorities that Gibson never had cancer. Earlier this year, she was found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct in an Australian court.
When handing down her judgement, Australian Federal Court Justice Debbie Mortimer said, “If there is one theme or pattern which emerges through her conduct, it is her relentless obsession with herself and what best serves her interests.”
Taking advantage of people
Gibson’s case, however, is just one example of the many hucksters who take advantage of people’s vulnerability.
Robert Goldberg, PhD, vice president and co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, says it’s an all too familiar tale.
“Scaring people with uncertainty about risks is a good business model for people like Belle Gibson. Gibson, like… many others, cashed in by scaring people about the dangers of just eating and breathing and then offering their own cure for the dangers they heralded,” he told Healthline.
In the age of social media, people like Gibson are able to build a high profile in a short period of time, but Goldberg says the idea of promoting quick fixes for illness has been around for a long time.
“This is nothing new. People have always sought protection from demons and dangers from those peddling quick fixes, especially those who position themselves as knowing what those demons are,” he said.
The internet has for many people become the first point of reference for a medical question.
A 2013 survey by Pew Research Center reported that one in three adults in the United States say they go online to try to find the cause of their medical condition, or the medical condition of someone else.
Of those who found a diagnosis online, 35 percent of respondents said they didn’t follow this up with a visit to a professional medical provider.
Goldberg says the plethora of health advice offered online is a double-edged sword.
“There is an incredible amount of health information at our fingertips. Most of it is good. However, it is still very easy to get flooded with information that is accurate but not true,” he said.
The problem with seeking out medical advice online, Goldberg says, is that it can reinforce inaccurate views or biases.
“In the words of Simon and Garfunkel, people hear what they want to hear, and they disregard the rest. It’s good to ask questions, and in some cases you can tell your doctor about new treatments or studies that they might not have seen. But in general, before doing so, it’s good to take a step back and ask ourselves, are we confirming our own biases or fears in the process?” Goldberg said.
‘Dr. Google’ will see you now
Last year, researchers from Harvard Medical School set about comparing real doctors with online symptom checkers.
The team sent 45 hypothetical patient scenarios, including medical history and list of symptoms, to 234 doctors and 23 online symptoms checkers.
The doctors weren’t allowed to conduct blood tests or examine the patients and could only work off notes.
The researchers found that the doctors were correct in their first diagnosis 72 percent of the time compared with 34 percent for the online options.
Dr. Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, a practicing internist and past president of the American College of Physicians, says despite the obvious benefits of seeing a doctor in person, patients are still likely to consult the internet before or after a visit.
“Dr. Google is already in the exam room whether we like it or not. Information is powerful but is only as good as its source. Make sure the information comes from a trusted source. Be discerning. Ask your doctor for trusted websites,” she told Healthline.
As for cases like Gibson’s, Fryhofer warns people to be critical of quick-fix remedies and bold claims.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Talk to your doctor. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Not only can untested remedies not help you, they might hurt you. Don’t be a guinea pig,” she said.