Medical Falsehoods and Social Media

Darwin is working hard these days. It’s not just with the Covid vaccine. Current research on social media shows that it is being used to spread either false or misleading treatment ideas regarding diets and cancer, some of which if followed would be fatal.

  • A study of articles published on WhatsApp found that only 13.6% of them were accurate and could withstand regulatory scrutiny. The remainder represented false or exaggerated claims with no factual basis.(1)
  • A newly reported study from the University of Utah covers items regarding cancers published on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and Pinterest in 2018 and 2019. Of the 200 articles identified, 30.5% contained harmful information encouraging readers to act in ways that would be detrimental to health. (2) This study finds that Pinterest tends to have more accurate information than the other sources.

What we are seeing in fact is a resurgence of the “patent medicine” business of the 1800s and early 1900s. Wiki offers a good definition of what this is about:

A patent medicine, also known as a nostrum (from the Latin nostrum remedium, or “our remedy”), is a commercial product advertised (usually heavily) as a purported over-the-counter medicine, without regard to its effectiveness. Patent medicines are typically characterized as pseudoscientific.

Patent medicines were one of the first major product categories that the advertising industry promoted; patent medicine promoters pioneered many advertising and sales techniques that were later used for other products. Patent medicine advertising often marketed products as being medical panaceas (or at least a treatment for many diseases) and emphasized exotic ingredients and endorsements from purported experts or celebrities, which may or may not have been true.

It’s a “get rich quick” scheme for the seller and a “buyer beware” situation for the consumer — or perhaps better, a “make sure your will is up to date” situation for the user.

Government agencies were created to hold sellers accountable for their misdeeds, such as the Food and Drug Administration. It seems like it’s past time for these agencies to get back in the saddle.

Or we could let it go and let the stupid kill themselves off. A Libertarian purist would endorse that.

[Note: There is a small gray area of new treatments that are in the process of being approved and alternative medical treatments that actually work. However, the number of these is no where near what is being hyped online.]


  1. Al Khaja, K.A.J., AlKhaja, A.K. & Sequeira, R.P. Drug information, misinformation, and disinformation on social media: a content analysis study. J Public Health Pol 39, 343–357 (2018).
found online
Note that anything that kills you will cure all of these symptoms!


  1. CBD tinctures seem to be the latest snake-oil. Though it seems to be efficacious in some circumstances, it’s being marketed as a cure-all. There is even a stand at our local farmers market.

    Liked by 1 person

    • People confuse “placebo effects” with real benefits. However, given human diversity, it’s always possible that someone somewhere is benefitting from it. Calling something a cure-all is just the way patent medicines were marketed 100+ years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

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