the role of social media in spreading harmful medical knowledge
The repercussions of the information age have caused a new kind of epidemic to emerge – an epidemic of health and medical misinformation, which has taken social media by storm. Concerns surrounding these “infodemics” of unsubstantiated and potentially harmful medical advice have recently come to the forefront of national news due to a recent social media sensation surrounding the drug Ozempic. Intended to treat type 2 diabetes, the prescription drug is credited with stunning “weight loss success”, and the topic “Ozempic” has racked up more than 300 million views on TikTok.
As a result, clinicians were inundated with requests for the drug, causing extreme shortages in the market. The situation now poses a problem for type 2 diabetic patients, with the resurgence of off-label use of the drug making it increasingly difficult to acquire for those who really need it. Novo Nordisk, the maker of Ozempic, issued a statement regarding the rise in unapproved use of the drug, saying, “We do not promote, suggest, or encourage off-label use of our drugs.”
And indeed, such unconventional use of the drug can lead to serious health complications. Their website lists possible side effects, including kidney failure, pancreatitis, thyroid tumors, and gallbladder problems. Not to mention, at a hefty cost of almost $900 per month, the potential for health repercussions isn’t the only price potential users of the drug will have to pay. All of this considered, the question remains: why do people continue to buy into the narrative?
The answer may lie in American culture. Societal demand for “quick” medical solutions has caused an “epidemic of over-prescribing,” in which pills are often seen as preferable to pursuing lasting behavioral changes. The diet industry in particular stands to capitalize on this mentality, marketing diet pills and injections that lure patients with quick fixes that claim to avoid months of intensive fasting and exercise.
The surge in demand for Ozempic has highlighted the concerning role social media is playing in this trend, with many media networks plagued by false promises of immediate health solutions. Personal anecdotes of miraculous weight loss tap into users’ desire for instant results, further blurring the lines between medical fact and fiction as a way to garner views and publicity.
This is particularly problematic given that 80% of people use the internet as a source of health information, and attempts to correct fake medical opinions have often proven unsuccessful. In fact, in an NBC News interview with Nat Gyenes, who directs the Digital Health Lab at tech nonprofit Meedan, they point out that debunking efforts “often cannot compete with the virality of claims that they seek to correct”. Corrective content and information is further prevented from reaching target audiences due to the presence of algorithms that curate content intended to reinforce users’ pre-existing beliefs and biases.
To complicate matters further, the role of the user interface in spreading these false or unsubstantiated medical claims often cannot be corrected by the intervention of licensed medical professionals. For example, clinical practice guidelines, which provide detailed instructions for physicians to make treatment decisions, often present extreme conflicts of interest. Frequently written by experts with financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, these guidelines generally encourage doctors to prescribe drugs as a first line of treatment rather than a fallback. All of these conditions have led to the evolution of an American healthcare system that is based on a drug monopoly – a system in which big pharma reigns supreme and pills are favored over holistic and alternative approaches.
Statistical figures support this reality: between 2000 and 2012, the proportion of adults in the United States who took five or more drugs almost doubled, and that does not take into account non-prescribed use, which was largely the case with drugs like Ozempic. Much of this increase has been attributed to the prominent role that social media platforms play in delivering pharmaceutical advertisements and information.
If left unchecked, the repercussions of this threaten to cost the American population dearly, with “drug overloads” potentially leading to the premature death of an estimated 150,000 older Americans over the next decade. Recent initiatives, such as a grassroots movement known as “deprescribing,” have sought to counter its effects by systematically weaning patients off inappropriate, duplicative or unnecessary medications. Various campaigns also seek to cultivate awareness, such as the Choosing Wisely Initiative, which aims to educate the public about the harms associated with prescription overuse.
The main thing – trust your instincts. Society is just beginning to grapple with the paradoxical emergence of social media as proponents and opponents of truth systems. While media networks have allowed information to proliferate at an unprecedented rate, such circumstances threaten to let networks disseminate both fictional and factual knowledge. Simply put, if the information sounds too good to be true, chances are it is.
Tate Moyer is an opinion columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.