Fact or fiction: navigating health information on social media.

Social media is an integral part of the lives of most young (and young at heart) people. It is not longer just a platform to follow the lives of friends: websites such as Facebook are now used to follow organisations, bloggers and common interest groups. While a lot of good is shared on social media, it can be very difficult and confusing for someone from a non-medical background to differentiate between factual and reliable webpages, and those that are not evidence based.

A recent and very disturbing example is the case of blogger Belle Gibson. Gibson, who has since been outed as a pathological liar, faked a terminal brain cancer diagnosis for years. Her claim to fame is her extraordinary assertions that she cured herself by pursuing alternative therapies such as eating more fruit and vegetables and, bizarrely, using coffee enemas daily. Not only did she amass thousands of followers before the lie was exposed, she also gained a book deal and had her app promoted by Apple. Worse still, she collected an estimated $300,000 dollars for multiple charities from her followers, but she never passed on the money. She kept it for herself. Understandably, many of her followers were left devastated when the truth was revealed: their idol was a fraud, a liar looking for fame and riches at the expense of vulnerable individuals desperate for miracle cure for their own cancers.

However, the most horrifying aspect of this scandal is that cancer patients actually believed Gibson’s claims and rejected conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, in favour of diet, exercise and other unproven ‘therapies’. We may never know how many people died, or had their lives cut short, as a result of Gibson’s lies.

As a scientist, it seems obvious to me that Gibson’s claims are fraudulent. However, I only know this because I studied cancer at university, spent a year researching at a cancer hospital, and currently research the applicability of certain cancer drugs to other diseases. I also know that cancer research is amongst the most well funded by governments world wide: if curing cancer were as easy prescribing healthy eating and coffee enemas, they would not be wasting their money looking for cures.

If I didn’t have the background I do, perhaps I also would have been confused by the claims. Certainly, some of the confusion is understandable. Eating healthy can only be a good thing, right? There is scientific evidence to suggest that certain cancers can be prevented by leading a healthy life style, including eating more fruit and vegetables, exercising and avoiding smoking, alcohol and excess sun exposure. Unfortunately, prevention is not the same as cure. Once the cancer is established, lifestyle changes are no longer sufficient.

Given that it can be confusing to filter though the lies and misinformation, especially when so many of it is mixed in with real facts and scaremongering, my next few blog posts will be focused on empowering women with the basic facts required to critically evaluate health related information on their own.

In the mean time, here are some links on the topic that you might find useful:

“Panacea or placebo: doctors should only practise evidence-based medicine”


“I know people will be shocked by Belle Gibson’s story, but I’m angry”