With the Internet and social media, it’s time to update this adage: “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” Now it can go from tweet to echo chamber to party platform before the truth even knows what hit it.
Information has been democratized, but that isn’t always healthy.
There’s been an explosion of shaky health information that is easily dispensed and difficult to refute because it spreads so quickly. Reliable sources are getting better at responding across a multitude of media platforms, but they have a lot of catching up to do.
For example, CDC.gov has 88,000 followers on Twitter. Celebrity Jenny McCarthy, who blames her son’s autism on vaccinations, has almost half a million. Somebody at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention needs to become famous so it can get the word out to more people that there isn’t a single sound scientific study that links vaccinations to autism. In fact, the lone English study that purported to do so turned out to be bogus. Perhaps Lady Gaga (23.7 million followers) or Justin Bieber (21 million) could tweet that.
Public health announcements have always been a vehicle for disseminating information, but these days the clutter that must be cut through is thicker than ever. One solution is to find more speakers and pump up the volume. The federal government has begun an unprecedented assault on smoking with a graphic $54 million ad campaign. If that sounds like a load of cash, consider that the U.S. tobacco industry takes all of two days to spend that much on the marketing of this public health menace.
Medical costs and productivity losses have been pegged at $10.47 per pack of cigarettes sold. That’s why this is everyone’s business.
The ads feature the living victims of smoking, complete with wigs, stomas (throat holes) and oxygen bottles. Spokanite Shawn Wright, 51, who had his cancerous larynx removed, agreed to take part. After surveying what he’d done to himself, the man told The Spokesman- Review: “There was no way I was going to stick a cigarette into that hole in my neck so I could smoke.”
That’s a gruesome image, but it’s no uglier than the truth. The problem is that Wright’s West Central neighbors either tune out or do not get critical health information. For instance, pregnant women in that area are the most apt to light up while pregnant, according to research by an epidemiologist with the Spokane Regional Health District. We need to find ways to connect them to reliable public health messages, and if it takes unconventional ads or unconventional media, so be it.
Whether it’s vaccinations, smoking or obesity, the medical community must become more involved in information dissemination. Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson is a Seattle-area pediatrician who has gained a solid following on Twitter and her Seattle Mama Doc blog. She is also the first recipient of the CDC Childhood Immunization Champion award for her innovative public health advocacy.
At an October health conference, she urged doctors to use social media to become the voice of science. “We need to be where the people are,” she told them. Because the bombardiers of false information surely will be.
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