This blog post is about protecting yourself from bad information online and building the skills in order to be able to evaluate information and decide if it is trustworthy. The internet is a vast, unregulated space and social media is filled with both self-proclaimed ‘experts’ as well as highly skilled and professionally registered people. It’s vitally important that we all have the necessary skills in order to identify the difference between the two, and distinguish good information from bad – particularly when it comes to our health!
This blog post was written as a beginner’s guide and so I break down some of the basics, although it could also serve as a beneficial reminder to someone who is already actively trying to think critically about health-related information online. It is designed for both the information you consume on social media as well as via internet search engines. There are also some helpful, more general critical thinking tips at the end of the post.
Let’s get started…
The best way to protect yourself from bad information online is to think critically. Critical thinking is a skill that is developed over time. Meaning, if you practice it for long enough you will eventually find that it becomes second nature. Many of us are introduced to critical thinking as school-age children, although (depending on your age, dear reader) the complexities of consuming information online may or may not have been really addressed. I focused on honing my critical thinking skills as a nursing student, and it’s something which I benefit from personally as well as use professionally. My point here is to not feel bad if this feels uncomfortable or difficult at first, and also to persevere because this is an important life skill.
The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (1987) defines critical thinking as the art of analysing and evaluating information to guide belief and action. It is a process that seeks to support clear, reasoned and better judgements through gathering and assessing information, open-minded thinking and reflective questioning – including of one’s own biases, prejudices and existing knowledge.
Things to ask yourself when trying to decide if the information you’re consuming online is trustworthy:
1. Who is the source – what is their background, do they have any authority or credentials? In some instances credentials really matter, in other circumstances are less relevant. For example you should be taking advice on medication from someone who is qualified to speak on this subject and professionally registered with the appropriate body (they should also be considering your case individually and this should never happen over social media). Someone who is sharing their lived experience won’t necessarily have a professional qualification. Lived experience is hugely valuable, and connecting with people who have gone through similar circumstances can be very meaningful. This sort of contact is commonly referred to as peer support and it’s widely recognised for the benefits that it can provide – it is also increasingly becoming available through the NHS and other large healthcare organisations. A peer support worker can have generalised discussions about the benefits and disadvantages of medication but they should not be offering individualised advice. As a consumer of healthcare, you should be balancing what it is that you stand to gain (or lose) with the type of information as well as the source. There is a place for both factual, evidence-based information, as well as personal experiences, but it is important that you are able to (a) identify the difference and (b) understand how much weight to give to each based upon whatever decision you’re making or opinion you’re forming.
2. Why was it written? Does the author have anything to gain by you believing what they’re saying? This is huge contemporary issue and one which is particularly relevant when considering information shared on social media. I was inspired to write this post after finding myself down an Instagram rabbit hole where I landed on a very popular page (to the tune of millions of followers) to find the author (who has no medical training whatsoever) promoting celery juice as a cure for pretty much everything. Will celery juice harm you? Probably not. Will it likely cure you of anything? Again, probably not. The sheer number of people who were subscribing to this nonsense is, quite frankly, terrifying. And guess what, he’s also promoting his collection of books! Note: this man isn’t advocating for the importance of a well-rounded diet (this I could get behind), he’s selling the completely unfounded belief that individual foods can cure serious illness or disease. He’s even managing to convince people to substitute evidence-backed medication or treatment plans for things such as cancer in favour of celery juice. What he is doing is dangerous and irresponsible.
3. Who published the information – is it a reputable source? This one is for information found outside of social media. As a rule, government-sponsored health websites are good sources of information. Large professional organisations and well-known medical schools may also be reliable sources of health information. If you’re in the UK, NHS websites are a good starting point. Considering the web address (URL) can sometimes be helpful: .gov identifies a government agency; .edu identifies an education institution; .org usually identifies nonprofits (professional groups, scientific, medical or research societies and advocacy groups); .com and .uk identify commercial websites such as businesses, pharmaceutical companies and sometimes hospitals. Do a bit of background digging on the author (check out what else they’ve written or published, what their credentials are, if they are employed by a university or research institution) and stay far away from anything that doesn’t cite the author. In many cases, I would expect a bibliography to be present and this should be extensive and contain scholarly, non-internet sources. For in-depth reading, online medical journals can be a virtual treasure trove. Access to the databases which house these (such as PubMed, PschINFO or Cochrane) can come with a subscription fee, however.
4. When was it written – is it current information? Medical information changes relatively quickly and so when doing health-related research you should generally stick to information that was published within the past ten years (although there are a few exceptions to this).
5. Is it widely accepted – can you find more than one reputable source which is saying the same thing? It’s a big red flag if you can’t find any other reputable (this part is key) sources which reiterate (confirm) someone’s claims or the information that you’ve found. Just because something is popular with the public doesn’t mean that it’s accurate or true. For example, the social media account I mentioned a moment ago that has millions of followers and which promotes celery juice as a cure for serious illness or disease.
Think about what the impact is going to be on your life if you accept the information that you’re being given. Big life choices or decisions that will have significant or lasting impact should be given more consideration and research. I think it is also important to address the rise in people attempting to self-diagnose using information which they’ve obtained online. This is not what this post is advocating for. You should always consult your doctor or other medical professional if you have a health problem. I have written this post because the accessibility of the internet has given rise to the spread of misinformation. Many of us are confronted daily (or even hourly) by health-related information online which makes it absolutely necessary to have the skills to protect yourself from bad information.
Lastly, here are some more tips to build on your general critical thinking skills:
- Go back to the basics. What do you already know? Why do you know it? Are you overlooking anything?
- Consider your biases. Is there anything that would make you prejudiced against an idea – or, conversely, more likely to accept it?
- Question all of your assumptions.
- Try to argue both sides of an issue, it will give you a far deeper understanding of it.
Remember: question everything. Not all false information is put out maliciously. Also, don’t forget that collective medical understanding is constantly evolving.
This post was written by Iris Brannan. You can read more about Iris’s background by clicking here.
The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (1987). 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform. Available from: https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766
Cottrell, Stella (2017). Critical thinking skills: effective analysis, argument and reflection. 3rd Edition. London: Palgrave.
Do you have any thoughts on this subject or want to share an experience? Leave a comment below.