The Art of the Social Media Nutrition Misinformer

I’ve been using Twitter for nutrition science purposes for 8 years now, and so I have observed a lot over this time. I find Twitter a great venue for keeping up with scientific issues specific to nutrition and those broader in science (related to statistics, ethics, new fields/techniques, etc.). For these purposes, you can follow great people and get the collective wisdom and reading list of experts who are doing really great work. At the darker end, like any human social collective, Twitter and other social media platforms can be cesspools to foment misinformation. And in ways, they cultivate and amplify such misinformation over true expertise. To borrow David Nunan’s term, there’s an “epidemic of misinformers”. I’ve maintained a list of such misinformers to observe over the years, and it continues to grow steadily. They are generally much more successful in messaging and motivating followers. These are what I consider the four main characteristics of such misinformers.

First and foremost, misinformers encourage distrust in health professionals. There are constant discussions within health sciences about quality of evidence, how to improve scientific methods, and so on. Such discussions are healthy within the scientific community and serve to increase our confidence in getting to scientific truths. Incrementally, we get better at improving the scientific process itself, which is still infinitely better than trying to get at objective truths through individual experience. Misinformers engage in historical revisionism that often villainizes historical scientists and groups, while promoting an alternative narrative of their heroes victimized by the establishment. Such narratives serve to rile up such communities, and make it difficult to have rational conversations. Those that have negative views against institutions and authoritative figures may find such narratives especially attractive.

Second, there’s always a clear and simple alternative message, and anecdotes are key to showing its truthfulness. Sometimes the message isn’t entirely incorrect. For example, there doesn’t seem to be one diet pattern that is particularly advantageous for weight loss in the general population on average that emerges in research. But people who self-select a particular diet from ideological motivations will likely be more enthusiastic and vocal about it, whether it be low carbohydrate, low fat, vegan, etc. Of course, those trained in critical thinking will understand that the tribalism of social media will make the diet look way more successful than the scientific literature will demonstrate. If you constantly stay up-to-date on the scientific literature in nutrition, you see that usually no single diet pattern clearly rises above the rest for most outcomes, hence a variety of patterns are usually provided as options by science-based practitioners. Yet misinformers will focus on their diet of choice as the one true solution to mitigate disease, suggesting that professional organizations are disregarding evidence when providing other options. Such communities yield many positive anecdotes within their groups, but one must recognize that they will skew the perception of the efficacy of such a diet to the broader population. Of course, how do you explain this to someone enraptured in their preferred narrative?

Third, but the most consistent misinformer characteristic in my opinion: such self-selected communities lack filters to distinguish source credibility. As previously discussed, not all information they share is necessarily incorrect- to the contrary- some may be important, credible, and relevant. But their danger is that mixed within the credible content is that which is not, with followers who are unable to distinguish the black, white, and grey. It is a deep net disservice to share and partner with fringe/pseudoscientific resources that promote dangerous health theories, discourage conventional medicine, and exaggerate or oversimplify information. Such partnerships only legitimize the nonsense to their followers. Often these partnerships are self-serving to amplify the misinformer’s message, sometimes enough to break into the mainstream. But those with respect for the science-based process will only favor credible channels of communication. You can tell when someone’s intentions are not based solely on the truth when they foment distrust in other areas of science as well. They may discount the consensus for vaccines, climate change, or other hot button issues.

Fourth, there’s almost always a book to be sold. I have only my observations, but the more one derides the “establishment” and suggests their own way is better (the further from “convention” the better), it is usually only a matter of time before a book deal is reached. Let me be clear- it is perfectly ok to sell your expertise if one is qualified. But expertise is reached after many years of intensive study with a foundation in the scientific process. The nature of studying nutrition makes it difficult to provide certainty in many areas and misinformers are happy to fill in the gaps. They will not understand that their books are the result of misappropriated respect for their vocality and not their expertise. If not a book, sometimes some other income source supports their continued efforts. Those railing about financial conflicts of interest in science while discounting these and other ideological sources of bias ought to reflect.

Is it our fault that misinformers often “win”? Or is it the nature of nuance that we must maintain when trying to communicate complex scientific issues? The death of the respect for expertise and the complex cognitive biases that social media exposes to our folly? I by no means consider myself any sort of expert, after studying nutrition science for only a decade, which is part of the problem inherent to expertise. I’ll never feel as confident in my social media content than someone who a few months ago latched onto a dietary narrative that perfectly aligns with their worldview. We also hold ourselves to ethical standards within an operating scope that others are not obligated to follow. My cynicism says the misinformers will always win out over good information, and tells me to log off social media and rid the distractions. But I remain hopeful and motivated by the good people I see everyday pushing back in diverse ways, and we must continue pushing.

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