NHS Chief warns social media is fertile ground for quacks, charlatans, and cranks

Speaking at an event on fake news tonight, the chief executive of the NHS will warn about the impact of ‘fake news’ on people’s health.

In the Oxford Conversation, at the Sheldonian Theatre, Sir Simon Stevens will warn that the proliferation of inaccurate and often deliberately misleading health information available online, often through the booming ‘wellness industry’, is leading to people taking risks with their health as well as wasting money on too-good-to-be-true remedies.

As well as highlighting ineffective cures, Sir Simon will also warn on misinformation about proven treatments, and will highlight the steep rise in cases of mumps, from around 1,000 in 2018 to about 5,000 last year, as an example of the impact that misinformation about vaccination can have. Around half of those affected in 2019 had not been vaccinated.

The NHS chief will take aim against alleged health products sold online which can be useless or even harmful, citing not only old fakes such as homeopathy but also new offerings such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP brand, and Russian social media bots undermining public faith in essential vaccines.

A recent select committee report claimed that fake news “has taken on new forms and has been hugely magnified by technology and the ubiquity of social media”.

Sir Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, is expected to say: “While fake news used to travel by word of mouth – and later the Caxton press – we all know that lies and misinformation can now be round the world at the touch of a button – before the truth has reached for its socks, never mind got its boots on.

“Myths and misinformation have been put on steroids by the availability of misleading claims online.

“While the term ‘fake news’ makes most people think about politics, people’s natural concern for their health, and particularly about that of their loved ones, makes this particularly fertile ground for quacks, charlatans, and cranks.

“In the 19th century Clark Stanley, an enterprising but unscrupulous American businessman, claimed that rattlesnakes offered miracle health cures, and so the original snake oil salesman was born.

“A century later, anti-vax lies have spawned health burdens being borne by children and parents in 2020.

“Half of the cases were in people who are in the so-called ‘Wakefield Generation’, born at the turn of the century, and who originally missed out on the vital MMR jab as a result of widespread disinformation.

“And now we have dubious ‘wellness’ products and dodgy procedures available on the web.

“Fresh from controversies over jade eggs and unusually scented candles, GOOP has just popped up with a new TV series, in which Gwyneth Paltrow and her team test vampire facials and back a “bodyworker” who claims to cure both acute psychological trauma and side effects by simply moving his hands two inches above a customer’s body.

“Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand peddles ‘psychic vampire repellent’; says ‘chemical sunscreen is a bad idea’; and promotes colonic irrigation and DIY coffee enema machines, despite them carrying considerable risks to health and NHS advice clearly stating there is “no scientific evidence to suggest there are any health benefits associated with colonic irrigation”.