In 2014, Elle published an article calling Belle Gibson “the most inspiring woman” after she blogged about beating terminal brain cancer through alternative therapies. Thousands of followers bought her tale of healing through clean eating.
Questions about Gibson began to arise in 2015, when she failed to donate the $320,000 she’d promised from sales of her app and cookbook, through her company The Whole Pantry. From there, the truth started spilling out.
Gibson never had cancer. She lied about her life, her background, and even her age. Everything The Whole Pantry was based on had been fabricated.
Last week, the shocking story came to a conclusion when an Australian federal court in Melbourne ordered Gibson to pay $320,000 back to the state of Victoria for lying about charitable donations.
As a health and well-being editor, I find this story terrifying. And I’ve grown up experimenting with my skin and health based on internet tips. My office drawer currently has liver tablets, ginseng pills, and unmarked supplements.
My “try it” motto is one I picked up from my mom and her sisters. For one year of high school, I drank a purple drink, made of water and grape seed extract every morning. My mom claimed it cured an uncle’s gout attacks and could give me energy. I didn’t even know what gout was (now I know peak incidence is at the age of 30), but the drink fizzed like a healthy soda. Whenever my friends stayed over, we’d gag shots of it down as it burned our throats.
Toward the end of the year, we were chugging the stuff just to get rid of it. In 2017, there’s finally a study about grape seed’s benefits for gout, but my takeaway for this delayed response from science is that my mom was definitely pulled into a multilevel marketing scheme.
My cousins and aunt have an expansive medical background as doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, so I used to give their advice the benefit of the doubt. But nobody in my house owns a microwave because they’re “radioactive.” Despite the microwave-cancer link being slim, my relatives continue to send me links on unverified claims, especially the one about how cell phones cause explosions at gas stations.
With the wellness industry growing fast, and the number of unchecked players in the health space, The Whole Pantry affair is just the tip of the iceberg. Every day, from Facebook to blogs, unbacked health claims continue to get shared and published.
This isn’t the first unsubstantiated health claim on the internet
In April, Michelle Phan, one of the original beauty vloggers on YouTube, went viral for opening up about depression. But in an interview with Racked, she’s quoted saying she’s never received a diagnosis from a medical professional. Instead, she got her diagnosis from quizzes on the internet. This isn’t to say her feelings weren’t valid, but her admission of treatment she used for herself (travel) is irresponsible to people in her audience who may require a diagnosis and professional help.
But she’s not the only influencer capitalizing on the wellness movement through her brand.
In July, television host John Oliver reported on Alex Jones of InfoWars, who pushes vitamins and “nutriceuticals” on his news show. Jones reportedly uses a “doctor” with no medical background to back up his supplements.
In August, The Outline published an exposé on David “Avocado” Wolfe, who has 11 million followers on Facebook and claims his red-wine-infused chocolate bars can make you live longer (there’s no evidence of this).
More recently, the nonprofit Truth in Advertising sued Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness blog, for “expressly or implicitly, [claiming] that its products — or third-party products that it promotes — can treat, cure, prevent, alleviate the symptoms of, or reduce the risk of developing a number of ailments, ranging from depression, anxiety, and insomnia, to infertility, uterine prolapse, and arthritis, just to name a few.”
Somewhere along the way, our thirst for information has only landed us on a stockpile of misinformation. That’s part of what makes The Whole Pantry fiasco so frightening.
At Healthline, we publish many articles based on search, and if there’s no scientific backing, we make sure we report on it, too. Because we know, and have heard from our audience, that people in chronic pain, with chronic illnesses, or conditions with no cure, are often willing to grasp onto anything for a glimmer of hope or a minute of relief.
This feeling of vulnerability and hope is what we want to provide some answers for. But what if this vulnerability is also what unchecked influencers, like Belle Gibson, may prey on?
The internet can be a great resource, depending on how you use it. And amongst the false claims, there’s good information. It’s the ability to find that information that should be taught and shared.
What you can do to make sure you’re getting the right health information
People are also looking for something “actionable,” which in industry terms can translate as “purchases,” “read next,” or “takeaways.” But working at Healthline, “actionable” has become the bare minimum of metrics. We, as editors, believe health information needs to be authoritative, accessible, and most importantly, truthful.
Any time you read about a new trend or health claim, you should ask yourself these questions before jumping to any conclusions:
1. Are there any scientific studies that back up this claim, and are they recent?
If yes, the studies should be about human participants (the larger sample size, the better) and not animals. Animals are often placed in unrealistic situations — for example, exposed to toxins at levels humans would rarely naturally be exposed to.
How recent the studies are matters, too. Unless the claims are conclusively proven (meaning no further research is needed), a study from the 1980s shouldn’t pass your smell test.
2. Does the claim really equal a ‘cure’ or is it just a preventative or protective effect?
A lot of products claim to be treatments and cures, using buzzwords with the prefix “anti,” such as antioxidant, anticancer, anti-aging, and more. Many brands will cling to these terms and flip the definition so a product becomes synonymous with “treatment,” giving the impression that it’s a “cure.”
However, many studies report protective and preventative effects rather than cures. Alternative remedies may provide some relief or improvement, but they’re unlikely to reverse a condition or ailment.
3. Is the story sponsored, selling something, or just simply has ads?
In the age of the internet, everything costs something. If you’re not spending dollars, then you’re spending your attention. With that attention, you’re spending time building familiarity and trust with a certain brand. This is why you see unrelated and related ads sometimes, because businesses pay for the space. That payment is how content, and the teams behind them, live.
In cases where stories aren’t sponsored by another brand, try to look at the extent of which something is being sold. At the end of the post, you can always ask, “Were they selling me information I can use or a product to use?” When it comes to health — especially chronic conditions — choose a site that prioritizes information first. Information is something you can take to a professional for a second opinion. Products and their variations will wait for you.
4. Is the expert a real, verified expert?
Anyone can claim they went to Harvard, but it doesn’t mean they graduated. It’s important to check whether an expert is practicing or well-respected within the field. Likewise, you shouldn’t disregard information only because it doesn’t come from a doctor. Instead, look at a website’s sources and editorial process.
At Healthline, we have fabulous medical reviewers and fact checkers who help support our editorial team. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to publish accurate and accessible information, act on reader feedback, make updates, and keep our sources as current as possible (for many conditions, we only accept studies within the last seven years).
In an ideal world, I wish we could read information and take it in “good faith” as publisher Penguin Books Australia did, according to The Guardian, when they published Belle Gibson’s cookbook. Being skeptical is stressful, and it’s hard work. But when it comes to health, it’s work that pays off.
Science hasn’t come to conclusions on many treatments, many of which haven’t even been studied yet. So that’s why I leave you with this checklist. I hope it empowers you to take control of your health journey, instead of leaving it in anonymous hands.
To learn more about evaluating health information online, see the National Institute of Health’s guidelines.
Christal Yuen is an editor at Healthline.com. When she’s not editing or writing, she’s spending time with her cat-dog, going to concerts, and reading books she doesn’t finish. You can reach her on Twitter.