Selling happiness, promoting disinformation
- Text by Inge Snip
I wash myself using only soap, I pick out the cheapest shampoo at the store, and my idea of mental rest is either working on our little forest yard or taking a hike with our two dogs. I’ve never quite understood the wellness hypes — detoxing with weird juices, vitamin supplements, and putting “eggs” in places they shouldn’t belong.
But the $4 trillion global wellness industry is growing yearly. And they do so by selling happiness and healing in large part through unscientific cures. The problem with the wellness industry isn’t only that it could be potentially harmful to individuals — such as the Chinese woman almost dying from using a homemade IV to inject fruit juice straight into her veins — its impacts can be felt on a much larger scale: from deciding not to vaccinate your children to voting against scientific-backed health policies.
How did we get here?
Decades ago, people went to doctors for health information. In 1966, more than three-quarters of Americans had great confidence in medical leaders. However, trust in the medical profession has declined sharply — only 34% trust medical leaders and only 23% express a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the healthcare system — and the internet has provided access to a wealth of information previously inaccessible.
Celebrities and social media influencers have taken advantage of this, with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Gloop as perhaps its most famous example. We’re told we can lose weight forever with one simple trick, cleanse our bodies from “toxins” with a juice, take a supplement or two to cure our insomnia.
“It’s almost now that we’re all obligated to do whatever we can, all the time, to try to improve our health and our wellbeing,” says Timothy Caulfield, a researcher, author and professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta and host of the show “A User’s Guide to Cheating Death.”
Even more so, wellness influencers need you to fear and distrust in order to sell you their products.
“Moving the kind of product that churns the wheels of the wellness-industrial complex requires a constant stream of fear and misinformation,” writes Jen Gunter, a California obstetrician-gynecologist, who has been dubbed Twitter’s resident gynecologist. “Look closer at most wellness sites and at many of their physician partners, and you’ll find a plethora of medical conspiracy theories: Vaccines and autism. The dangers of water fluoridation. Bras and breast cancer. Cellphones and brain cancer. Heavy metal poisoning. AIDS as a construct of Big Pharma.”
The power of social media and celebrity advice, the commodification of “happiness,” the urge to sell us more and more by pushing conspiracy theories and false information, and the resulting decline in trust in the medical field, contribute to a major public health crisis. One of which the end is not in sight yet.
Next time you buy a 3-day cleanse to get rid of those “toxins,” you may want to think twice.
My favorite Coda Stories this week
We’re expanding our coverage of the war on science to look at how anti-science movements are created and how they thrive. This article by Lily Hyde explains why Ukraine this year has seen the largest increase in measles in the world.
It isn’t only commercial interest pushing health misinformation. One of the largest special ops conducted by the KGB in the 1980s was Operation Infection: designed to spread disinformation about aids being a CIA invention. Daria Litvinova investigated in this multimedia piece, tracking how a disinformation spiral started by the Soviets is now killing Russians.
IN OTHER NEWS:
- Dutch reporter is jailed for failing to reveal his source. Law enforcement previously intercepted conversations between the reporter and his source (DutchNews)
- UK investigation reveals Russian hackers impersonated Iranian hackers (Coda Story)
- Lithuanians are using software to fight back against fake news (The Economist)
- How Ethiopia’s ruling coalition created a playbook for disinformation (Global Voices)
- The Energy 202: ExxonMobil goes on trial over accusations it misled investors about climate change costs (The Washington Post)