Dalhousie’s lab manager can’t believe the internet is this trustworthy because there’s a lot of crap out there.
More than half of Canadians trust social media and blogs about doctors and nutritionists, according to a recently published study study.
Despite growing concerns about online misinformation, the results – which are not peer-reviewed – will not come as a surprise to anyone piled through the sea of online food and nutrition advice. However, for some researchers, they also indicate an urge to find personalized information that matches our beliefs, even when it may not be.
“Basically, you can find information that fits into that kind of more personal or tailored information perspective,” said Elizabeth Sillence, a professor of psychology at Northumbria University who was unaffiliated with the study. “People often have strong initial preferences and expectations about the type of information they are looking for, and this can affect the extent to which they trust it.”
The studyIt is estimated that 53 percent of Canadians trust the internet for food advice, published last week by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab. Doctors and friends or family members follow – around 40 percent and 28 percent, respectively – while around a quarter of Canadians trust other experts such as alternative practitioners or personal trainers.
“The Internet is clearly a great tool for obtaining nutritional information,” said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Dalhousie laboratory. “(But I) can’t believe the internet is this trustworthy because there’s a lot of crap out there.”
Sillence said these numbers weren’t surprising. The web offers an extensive repository of information, including emotional personal testimonials. These often align with people’s experiences, especially when it comes to food, nutrition and health, she said. Healthcare professionals – or even official government or academic websites – are often unable to provide advice that people believe is tailored to their experience of a diet-related or medical problem.
Not only that. In her research – Sillence explores why people trust the internet to doctors for medical advice – she found that the process of online research itself can make people more confident in what it says. However, this research already leans towards a certain result as soon as we start typing in the search bar.
“You could use certain search terms,” she said. From the moment our browser fills up with pages to look at, users rely on their personal guidelines to review websites or social media posts. Familiarity with the website and the person or information behind it is consistently important for many, she said, but other indicators also play a role.
“There are quick rules of thumb (that people usually rely on): Does the website look professional? Does the page have the right words? All of these things. Even then, if people don’t see these indicators right away, people can really refuse information, which can be pretty good information, ”she said. They will keep searching until they find information that reflects their values, beliefs, and experiences, Sillence said – even though it could be inaccurate, misleading, or false.
Finding more personalized or relevant information isn’t bad, Sillence said. People can find comfort or healing by connecting with others who share similar concerns or experiences. Often times, these concerns reflect longstanding prejudices in general medical or nutritional advice. For example, women were regular locked out from medical studies; Their medical concerns – like those of many minorities – have been dismissed by professionals in the past. Both help to undermine trust in mainstream sources.
Still, taking web sources with a grain of salt is wise when it comes to nutrition, said Kyla Detta, a nutrition trainer living in Ireland but originally from Canada.
“It’s hard to teach people to swear by certain diets,” they found online. Often times, customers see them swear by a diet they found online that is not healthy or sustainable for them. Holding on to it is often brutal to their physical and mental health, she said, and undermines her general well-being.
Advice that offers a quick fix probably shouldn’t be trustworthy, Detta said. More important, she said, is building a long-term, healthy relationship with food that includes a varied and enjoyable diet.
“Don’t just use online resources. You will get a lot of opinions online, not people who come from an educated point of view, ”she said. “The goal of nutrition should be something that is sustainable and fun.”
Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Local Journalism Initiative, Canada’s National Observer