The Influencer Scientists Debunking Online Misinformation

Science Feedback and other fact checkers deal with a deluge of false images, so, over time, YouTube and Instagram have acquired dozens of resident food scientists, dermatologists, registered dietitians, OBGYNs, surgeons, astronomers, veterinarians, biochemists with specialties in beauty product quality assurance. ”I feel a lot of responsibility,” says Abbey Sharp, a Canadian registered dietitian and YouTuber who frequently makes evidence-based critiques of online diet trends. “I don’t think it’s fair to expect the public to be able to discern what is good quality information and what isn’t. They’re going by an image, a person saying, ‘I followed this diet and look what happened to me.’” Online, on highly visual platforms, anecdotal evidence reigns supreme. Sharp is careful to point out that, for individual influencers, recommendations like eschewing cooked foods or fasting intermittently could be healthy and beneficial. “It’s dangerous because our needs can be so different,” she says. “But the way it’s painted by influencers is that it’s the only way to eat.”

Other experts, like YouTube biochemist Kenna, have focused on the safety of the many products influencers sell their followings, often with extravagant claims about their efficacy. Recently, Kenna devoted an entire video to the influencer-driven trend of drinking essential oils in water as a health aid. Reading from incident reports, Kenna explains why ingesting essential oils is a truly bad idea. “[A woman who ingested a few drops of lemon oil] experienced very severe stomach cramps, gas, painful bloating, severe diarrhea, lethargy, drowsiness,” she reads. Then, looking up at the camera, she says, “Essentially, this person was poisoned. These are symptoms of poison.” And not, as several influencers have claimed, symptoms associated with “toxins” leaving the body.

Scientist influencers tend to garner criticism from two distinct camps of people: those who support the people or practices they’re criticizing, and other scientists. “Even way back, 100 years ago, people would say that scientists who are out there talking in public cafes were less serious scientists,” says Paige Jarreau, a science communication expert at Louisiana State University who also works with telemedicine app LifeOmic. In some cases, she thinks that’s appropriate—publicizing research that hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, for example, can be misleading at best and pseudoscience at worst. Within the intra-science criticisms of scientists who are very online, though, there exists a (often gendered) bit of crustiness about embracing newer modes of communicating with the public, even though research suggests seeing scientists participating online is positively breaking down stereotypes about what scientific research is and who can do it.

According to Jarreau, the trend of scientists debunking online misinformation as a side hustle is also precedented, and, of the two schools of critics, it’s the haters who may point to the real issue with debunkings. “When science blogs first came online, it was a community of debunkers,” she says. “The problem is that there’s a lot of ways for debunkings to go wrong.” Often, unless done with utmost tact and empathy, debunking misinformation will only make those taken in by it enraged, and cling to the pseudoscientific evidence they have all the harder. Scientist influencers know this. “When it comes to food and diets, it’s a bit of a religion,” Sharp says. “Food is identity, and criticizing an aspect of their identity is a huge blow. Some attack what I know and don’t know, some tell me I’m fat and ugly and need to go die. You get all sorts.” At worst, Jarreau says, debunking may end up serving only people who already knew the truth, “mythbusting for people who never believed the myth.”

Ultimately, everyone agrees on what a lifestyle misinformation best-case scenario would look like: YouTube’s existing misinformation strategy, expanded. “If Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram control what we see in our feeds,” Sharp says. “From a broad, public health standpoint, it would help if they were able to prioritize evidence-based content.” Jarreau calls this move “vaccinating people against misinformation.” “Imagine if, when people searched for dry fasting, the first thing that came up is that it might be dangerous,” she says. “They might not go down the road of trying it and coming to believe it, which is very difficult to counter.”

According to YouTube, its own data suggests this is true: Since January, when they implemented their new misinformation policies, they’ve reduced the number of views from recommendations on videos containing misinformation by 50 percent in the United States. All it takes is putting science first.

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