Countering Social Media Misinformation

Cherie A. Fathy, MD, MPH


January 07, 2022

During one of my internet-surfing moments, as I was clicking mindlessly through social media, I came across an image that caught my eye:

Now, mind you, I have worked in an eye emergency room. My eyes are trained to think of the worst possible scenario that could happen to a person's eye at any given moment. So, hot ghee + an unprotected eye = instant palpitations. I have seen eye disasters, and this is how they start. The repercussions of recreating this method at home or without appropriate precautions could be devastating.

I googled where this idea originated. Turns out, it's an age-old Ayurvedic practice, but not one that has much research behind it.

In this video by Refinery29 (a digital media company), a young woman shares her struggles with dry eye disease. She mentions that she initially presented to her eye doctor and was told, "Oh, it's probably allergies"; an answer she thought to be untrue and unsatisfactory.

Her story is compelling: Her dry eyes affected her activities of daily living, much like many of our patients. She then states that she was looking for a "natural" alternative to eye drops and prescriptions so she turned to an Ayurvedic practitioner and massage therapist for the netra basti treatment.

It's easy to shake our heads and dismiss this as silly pseudoscience before just moving on, but the reach of this video is quite intimidating. It now has almost 5 million views on YouTube. In contrast, the American Academy of Ophthalmology's video on dry eye disease has just over 10,000 views.

The technique in the Refinery29 video has some historical precedent, but there's plenty of other misinformation out there that has absolutely no merit. I'm honestly sick of feeling so behind in this race against medical misinformation. How do doctors keep up with viral social media clickbait?

Lessons in 'Internet Hygiene'

We're up against a formidable competitor: "the wellness industrial complex." In a podcast episode of America Dissected, former Executive Director of the Detroit Health Department Dr Abdul El-Sayed, and ob/gyn Dr Jen Gunter discuss how to best tackle the industry. They argue that physicians tend to focus only on what they know and do not extrapolate beyond that, making us hesitant to join in on public discourse.

In comparison, there are plenty of uninformed voices that feel very comfortable sharing misinformation so as to go viral on the internet, voraciously filling the void for an internet audience eager for answers.

One of the main takeaways from the America Dissected episode was that we need to be teaching our patients "internet hygiene," or how to critically assess the reliability of the information they are reading online. Plus, our one-on-one patient encounters are likely the most effective tool we have against the wellness industrial complex.

We can help our patients learn how to access information online and how to identify bias or propaganda. Making sure that we actively ask and address the primary concern for a patient's visit can also help to ensure that they feel heard during a clinic encounter instead of feeling the need to scour the internet for their unanswered questions.

Now, I turn to you all. Especially for patients who don't have a routine primary care physician or optometrist/ophthalmologist. How do we reach out to these folks and counter the social media sophistry? To its credit, Refinery29 also has a great video starring Neda Shamie, MD, which has a little over 2 million views, that appropriately and effectively counsels viewers on what it's like to undergo LASIK. Shamie does a great job of meeting our patients where they are.

Do you think we should continue to engage with these social media sites on their own turf? What else can we do?

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About Dr Cherie Fathy
Cherie A. Fathy, MD, MPH, is a cornea fellow at the Wilmer Eye Institute at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. She completed her undergraduate, master's in public health, and medical degrees at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and her ophthalmology residency at the Wills Eye Hospital. Cherie is interested in constantly improving how we deliver care to our patients. You can usually find Cherie napping, contemplating whether she should ride her Peloton, or bookmarking recipes that she'll probably never make.

Opinions expressed are solely Cherie's own and do not express the views or opinions of her employer.

You can connect with Cherie on Twitter: @CherieEyeMD


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