Quackery won’t disappear by deplatforming or censoring people. Dr. Mercola proved that: After his posts were curtailed by Twitter and Facebook, he simply migrated to the newsletter platform Substack, where he’s one of a number of anti-vaccine activists reportedly making over $1 million annually for stoking vaccine fears. If we really want to push back against health nonsense, we also need more than one-off celebrity condemnations and targeted content disappearing. Instead, we need to prevent false or misleading health claims from reaching millions of people in the first place.
Doing this won’t be easy. It will require a mix of strategies, tailored to different platforms and groups. E-commerce sites like Amazon could introduce content warnings or adjust their pricing and ranking algorithms for health products and books that have been flagged for misinformation. Governments could also step in and mandate evidentiary standards for a broader range of health statements than the pharmaceutical and food claims they currently regulate.
Streaming platforms like Netflix and Spotify could introduce fact-checking for their nonfiction health content. They could provide additional context, including links to credible information sources, or adjust their algorithms to limit the spread of health misinformation. They could also play an educational role, developing programs that improve media and information literacy.
The best health bunk prevention of all may be education. Two randomized-control trials carried out in Uganda showed that schoolchildren and their parents can be taught to vet the reliability of health-treatment claims and make more informed decisions. If similar approaches became mainstream, we’d have little armies of lie detectors everywhere who could prevent dubious health figures from ever getting a big platform.
We also need approaches that would have an impact across the web, like raising the stakes for health professionals who, as two health care experts fighting disinformation wrote, are “weaponizing their white coats” to mislead the public. Right now, state medical regulatory bodies focus on individual patient encounters, not the role doctors might play as healers for the masses. The American Medical Association has commented occasionally on public-facing physicians, yet while doctor disinformation has only worsened in the pandemic, few physicians have been reprimanded by their state boards.
Whatever strategies companies and governments embrace, they must also protect other priorities, like well-functioning markets and freedom of expression. They should be applied consistently to all people, regardless of the tribe they’re part of — from liberal lifestyle gurus like Ms. Paltrow to libertarian-leaning talking heads like Mr. Rogan. And any approach tried should be defensible, rooted in evidence and tempered by a healthy dose of humility and empathy.
The good news is that it’s now easier than ever to make sure health claims are well informed. Alongside the torrent of health junk, there’s been a quiet revolution to surface the best-available research and make it accessible for all. As we described in a recent report by the Global Commission on Evidence to Address Societal Challenges on the importance of scientific evidence, “living” evidence syntheses have taken off during the pandemic. These are continuously updated documents that slot in new studies as they are published, based on their quality, so users have an evolving picture of what the entire research base, not just the newest paper, suggests about a particular issue.