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Social media: NHS chief warns of ‘fake news’ risk to health

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Rumours about vaccines pose a risk to health Rumours about vaccines pose a risk to public health, said Sir Simon Stevens

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, NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has warned.

Speaking at the Oxford Conversation, Mr Stevens warned that misinformation about proven treatments, and will highlight the steep rise in cases of mumps, from around 1000 in 2018 to about 5000 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.

‘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,’ said Sir Simon.

‘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.’

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 actress 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

‘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,’ added Sir Simon.

‘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”.’

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