Sunday, December 11, 2011

Media, Social Media and Medical Research - Do we need to police the hype cycle?

By now everyone knows the story of "Sitting for prolonged periods makes your bum bigger".  The news was flashed all over the WWW and Social Media. A Google search reveals over 2 million results for this search phrase since October 17the when this study came out.  The news media was splashed with images like this.  In addition, it was spread by Twitter and Facebook.

From The Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8935097/Sitting-down-makes-your-bum-bigger.html)
You can get an abstract of the study here but the full article is behind a pay wall.  The key point is that this study was done in a lab by artificially putting a stretching force on cells.  The research is important to understand how mechanical forces can affect differentiation of fat cells and the pathways that can impact this.

The problem is how this basic science experiment has been extrapolated to a clinical outcome without sufficient evidence and distributed so widely.  Sure sitting for long periods is probably not good for you as some studies have shown. So probably no harm done.  Unfortunately this is happening all the time for all kinds of studies.  In the age of 24 hour news cycles, live blogs and various measures of your social influence, the media tend to sensationalize news to get a wider distribution rather than analyze and report it responsibly.  We know about many such stories that were incorrectly reported and then had to be retracted but not before they had spread all over the Web.  This is not going to change in the foreseeable future.

The social media do not have a good rating systems for who provides authentic balanced information.  People tend to be rated based on # of followers, # of shares/retweets/mentions thus again perpetuating the need for sensationalizing the news.

As personalized news filters (Zite, Currents, Flipboard) and Social Media becomes the predominant manner in which we get our news, we need to develop a rating system for sources that are authentic, balanced and diligent about going to and analyzing the primary sources. This is even more important as patients search for information on their conditions and become more involved in their own health.  There are a number of respected web sites for health related information but they may not be able to updated quickly enough.  Also the user would have to go to that site to get the information.

We can leverage the features of various search tools that tag a search result with names of our contacts who have +1ed it.  The late  sidewiki was another such feature that could help.  Maybe this will all get sorted out in time, maybe we just need to be patient or maybe the move to have real names in Google Profiles is a move to make this happen?  Twitter in the meantime has stopped the Verified account for the public.  Still all it does is identify who you are, we need to know if something you post or retweet is verified information.  Will at some point, folks start giving +1 to the person than the news item?