Reviewing health and fitness news on the internet can produce a minefield of misinformation. Anybody can open a social media account, build a polished website with DIY templates, and set up shop as a self-appointed health and fitness expert. And people who do this can lend their work an air of authority by mimicking the design and presentation of authoritative health-news sources.
So how do you determine if something you read online is true? Amanda Vogel, MA (human kinetics), a Vancouver, British Columbia-based certified fitness pro and owner of fitnesstestdrive.com, a blog that reviews health/fitness products, shares some tips.
Embrace Critical Thinking
Evaluating the credibility of health and fitness information and taking responsibility for the accuracy of your own social media posts are crucial tasks. Where to begin?
Step 1: Exercise Critical Thinking
Ask questions and objectively analyze what you’re seeing, whether it’s a headline, a video, a news report, a photo or a Facebook rant. “The initial move of just asking the question ‘Do I trust this?’ is a really good first step,” says Joel Breakstone, PhD, director at the Stanford History Education Group.
Step 2: Question the Source of the Information
“Asking basic questions is a powerful shift away from what people are often doing now, which is simply accepting information at face value,” says Breakstone. Thinking critically does not require an hourlong research project. Do a quick Google search, and surf around the website in question to get a sense of who’s behind it. Breakstone recommends looking beyond the website’s “About” page, though. “There are lots of sites that are seeking to obscure their identity,” he says, “so leave the site you are on, and quickly do a separate Google search to see what other people say about that website or that individual.”
On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, look for a blue verified badge (which looks like a checkmark), confirming that an account—belonging to a media outlet, popular brand or public figure—has been deemed authentic by the social media channel itself. The badge does not mean everything posted from that account is true or fact checked, but it does verify that the individuals/associations are who they say they are.
Step 3: Dig Deeper
Double-check when articles and studies were first published. People sometimes post what they think is breaking news on social media when, in fact, the item is many months or years old.
After all that, be ready to investigate further. Yoni Freedhoff, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and medical director at the Bariatric Medical Institute, suggests asking these questions to uncover who is promoting the information and why: “Do they have a vested interest, especially if monetary, in a particular outcome or message? Do they have the appropriate background to have evaluated the claims they’re making—meaning, is there confidence they’ve actually read and understood the claim’s source?”
Evaluating Credibility Online
Once you understand the information’s source, it’s time to figure out what the news is trying to convey (and why). Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA, IDEA author and co-owner of a blog for baby boomers called funandfit.org, says to consider whether new information validates or refutes our knowledge base.
“If it goes against accepted practice or seems too good to be true, or if I simply want the info to be right [because] I agree with it, then I need to trace the links to the primary or original source,” she says.
Weigh new health and fitness information against the current body of evidence. “Honestly,” says Freedhoff, “the easiest litmus test is the age-old ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’ The inconvenient truth of healthy living is that it requires a great deal of effort.”