The Information Problem in Health and Healthcare Part 4: Your Online Experience

By Dr Ernst
February 15, 2018

In the first installment of this series, we introduced the various problems involved in presenting and consuming health information and discussed the problem of bias in scientific research and reporting. In the second installment, we looked at how journalism and the media industry contribute to these issues. In the third installment, we explored how we, the readers and consumers of information, contribute to the problem.

In the previous post, we explored the echo chamber problem and how we contribute to only exposing ourselves to certain types of information repeatedly and without balance. But we are not completely to blame.

In this post, we will discuss how Internet companies, tech companies and certain unavoidable limitations of our own minds (and physics) contribute to misinformation as we search for answers about our health.

Personalized Content

Here’s a scary thought: Google knows you. It knows your interests, hobbies, your innermost thoughts and feelings. In an effort to give you more of what you want, Google and other search engines (and many other sites) use your search history as a guideline when you surf the web. It’s a practice called online personalization.

How does it work?

Say you want to research cancer cures. If I do a simple “Cancer Cures” search on Google, based on my history (which I’m sure you can guess is rather alternative when it comes to health) looks like this:

Natural this, natural that. Now, I went to a different browser, cleared my history and cookies and searched again. Check out the results:

It is somewhat similar, but look at the subtle differences. After two results that appear to be “alternative,” we get into more mainstream news articles about injections and immunotherapy.

So your pre-existing views on what cures cancer are just continuously reinforced by Google as your history builds on itself over time.

This means that, in terms of cancer treatments and so much more in regards to health, politics, religion and more, people are so much less likely to be exposed to anything other than what they already believe–and that’s unfortunate–even if it is Google and other site’s attempt to give you a better, more customized online experience.

Deliberate censorship

Depending on the country in which you live, varying grades of censorship are deliberately a part of your online experience. The most extreme example is probably North Korea, where most people aren’t even allowed to access the Internet. China is quite keen to censor web content, search results, ban certain websites and imprison citizens and journalists who speak out or are caught trying to circumvent the rules. Even Western European countries censor certain content, and yes, it exists in America as well. Wikipedia has aggregated a fair list of examples of Google censorship–at least what we know of.

The most offensive story so far in terms of health information is Google’s blacklisting of more than 140,000 pages on the alternative health website, Google has declined to comment as to exactly why they have done this, simply stating the site has “violated one or more” of their guidelines.

The site’s founder, Mike Adams, believes it is a deliberate attempt to quash health information that goes against mainstream, monied health interests, saying:

“It’s about total domination over all information so that humanity never learns that cancer can be prevented with vitamin D, or that glyphosate herbicide causes cancer, or that statin drugs are a multi-billion-dollar medical scam.”

That could be true–and things like this do happen all the time. However, an audit of the Natural News website by a third party did find a few violations of Google’s guidelines, though the auditor insists that they are unintentional and largely innocent.

Time and physical limitations

At the time of writing, there are more than 1.3 billion websites online. However, we spend the majority of our time on Facebook (more than 3x amount of time spent than any other website).

The world wide web is a big place, largely unexplored, like the ocean or the Wild West. There’s simply not enough time in anyone’s life to make a fair go of every possible health (or anything else) website.

The bottom line

If you are not interested in personalized search results on Google, you can disable it in one of two ways.

You can also periodically clear your cookies and browser history. This resets the information Google uses to determine how to personalize your search results, effectively setting you back to zero. (Again, that link instructs browser and cookie clearing in Chrome only.)

As for censorship, well, there’s not much we can do about it. Google, Facebook, and the other tech companies are privately owned and free to run their businesses however they see fit.

If the debate over net neutrality sparks up again, you might consider contacting your Member of Congress in favor of it. It was recently repealed, which allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to basically choose what you can and can’t access on the Internet, mostly for profit.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of your due diligence. Consider using different search engines (like Yahoo or Bing) and see if different things come up. Dig past the first page of your Google results. Find forums and people who have delved deep into the subject matter and can point you toward what you seek. Don’t be satisfied–ever–with what is fed to you.

This ends the four-part health information series. I hope you’ve enjoyed and gained from it.


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