My holiday wishes for evidence-based social media
December 19, 2016
Imagine you are a 20-year old woman and you think you might have a urinary tract infection (UTI). You head to Google and the results suggest this YouTube Video which describes how to cure a UTI without antibiotics and only using water. The video seems legitimate – it has over 100,000 views, the vlogger has nearly half a million subscribers and even her own healthy living website. The vlogger seems similar to you in many ways and shares her positive experience curing her own UTI. So what should you do? Go see your family doctor or try using a water fast?
I have two holiday wishes for evidence-based medicine, which stem from my growing concern about health claims made on social media, including Instagram.
My first wish is for all social media influencers (YouTubers, Instagramers, Snapchatters, etc.) to publish financial disclosure statements when discussing health products, experiences, or claims. Some positive steps have been taken, but more standardised disclosure is needed. YouTube, for example, has recently updated their policy on paid product placements and endorsements and requires content-makers to notify them if they have a commercial relationship. In Canada, the national governing body of advertising has released new rules requiring individuals on social media to disclose commercial relationships. A simple solution would be to include a disclosure statement, like those required for publications in academic journals, in the description section of a video or post: “The content creator declares no conflicts of interests” or “The creator has received payment in the form of _____ for this content.”
While I believe financial disclosure is necessary, it is not sufficient to protect the public. Therefore, my second wish is for a simple checklist to help everyday people identify real from rubbish claims about health as seen on social media. Vested interest is one concern, but the quality of evidence underpinning a health claim, such as water fasting to cure UTIs, is also important. A systematic review found that YouTube is frequently used as a medium for promoting unscientific therapies and drugs, and called for a need for tools to critically appraise such content. I echo this call, and welcome anyone who would like to collaborate to make this wish a reality. We can start after the holidays by adapt existing resources.