Fake News and the rise of celebrity health (false) expertise
Written by Kimberly Jamie
On Monday 18th February 2019, the Department of Sociology hosted a day-long event dedicated to sociological analysis of “fake news”. For this members of the Health and Social Theory Research Group (Kim Jamie, Tiago Moreira and Brian Castellani) participated in a session where we questioned whether people have had enough of “experts”, and whether fake news is bad for our health. These are big questions to ask and even bigger questions to try and answer but, in the fifteen minutes speaking time we were allotted, we tried!
We focused particularly on the rise of celebrities as health experts. In recent years, we’ve seen expertise shift from traditional sources like doctors and scientists to celebrities who use their huge social media influence to peddle health interventions. Needless to say the evidence for many of these interventions tends to be minimal, if non-existent. To get the audience thinking about this, Kim used a few of the most notable examples to illustrate what we meant and, inevitably, Gwyneth Paltrow’s name and her V-steam method popped up. Briefly, the V-steam suggests that women attempt to balance their hormones by regularly “sitting on a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus”. Experts have, of course, refuted the claims that women need to steam clean their most intimate areas.
Tiago then thought about how this links with the commodification of health; buy this product and you will feel better. While celebrities and other quacks have long made promises of health and wellbeing, in the early part of the twentieth century, pharmaceutical companies did this too until the introduction of regulations requiring proof of efficacy. These regulations aren’t water-tight though and companies can to get around these regulations by labelling things as food or natural products, because the level of regulation and control is much lower. When celebrities are selling products or behaviours branded with a wellness message, regulation is even lower. The only way celebrity claims can be questioned is through individual doctors or scientists speaking out to say “this doesn’t work!”, which sends a message of hopelessness; the truth is boring and doesn’t sell well!
Brian finished off the provocation by questioning the effects of celebrity health advice. He suggested that celebrity health narratives support only a particular body image, a certain age, ethnicity, social class and so forth. Another, and perhaps the most important consequence, is they spread misinformation, particularly in terms of mental health, vaccines, the important of medical expertise, and the credibility of public health. They also continue to perpetuate a false narrative that health is the responsibility of individuals, rather than the social systems in which they live. For example, rather than the onus being on people working together to improve the local school system’s provision of healthy meals, the focus is on individuals using their purchasing power to care for themselves.
We then had 15-minutes for questions and were challenged on a range of issues such as what is an influencer? Can/should celebrity misinformation be stopped? And who is to blame for celebrity misinformation? This gave us lots of (healthy, celebrity-endorsed) food for thought and I’m sure we’ll be coming back to these questions in time!