There is a lot of online content aimed at women and a lot of that focuses on our health and wellbeing. We may have moved past the toxic diet and dating trends of the early 2000s but, sadly, misinformation in the realm of “feminine” topics is still rampant and can take many different forms. This article will help you recognise unreliable information so you can avoid it.
In the digital age, we have information at our fingertips 24/7 but not all of it is reliable. Deliberately or not, content creators sometimes present misleading information, and many of the women-oriented topics are especially easy to distort and present as fact.
“I read it on the internet—it must be true.” This well-known ironic saying reminds us of the dangers of modern information sharing. From catfishing to scam ads, deception online is rampant as ever, but the internet provides too many benefits for us to give it up. One of the most important topics that has us turning to internet for help is health information.
Studies show that in Europe and the US more than half the general population seeks health information online, and women are more likely to do so than men.
Thanks to the multifaceted nature of social media and the ever-growing importance of targeted ads and content, we regularly encounter health information online even when we aren’t looking for it.
Just start scrolling through your feed and advice about exercise, diet, and other lifestyle-related topics will pop up eventually. Platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are especially good at flooding you with visually appealing content algorithmically tailored to your interests.
But remember—the health-related choices we make directly impact our lives, and content creators are just people who sometimes make mistakes and sometimes even straight up lie to us for profit.
Women may be interested in health-related topics for many different reasons, but due to the mental load commonly assigned to women at home, we are often expected not only to keep ourselves healthy and attractive but also to take primary responsibility for the health of our children, partners, and elderly relatives. This is why general and reproductive health, sports and nutrition tips, childcare advice, and homemaking how-tos are topics frequently found in female-dominated information spaces.
We know what woman-oriented content looks like. It is friendly and casual, often designed using gender-coded colours. The casual conversational tone—like advice from an older sister or a good friend—can help make complex or boring topics easier to understand, but it can also sometimes hide serious shortcomings in fact-checking.
Wellness is an all-encompassing field, and millions of online personalities the world over belong to the “lifestyle” genre of influencers who regularly present us with health-related information. This field is typically female dominated.
Men are also subject to misleading and straight-up harmful factoids in topics tailored to them, especially in the field of sports and muscle building. But there are specific, identifiable ways misinformation is presented to women and that is the topic of this article.
Although ostensibly, the whole point of advertising is to help people find products that speak to them, for corporations, the division between “masculine” and “feminine” marketing can be a gold mine. You can sell the same thing to two different audiences, just “pink it and shrink it” for the women and sell it at a higher price point.
We also know that historically societies have designated certain topics as for women only. Online information and entertainment spaces are a natural continuation of this age-old practice. This can be both empowering and restrictive.
Never have women been able to express themselves as freely as they can today. For many of us, online platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and a multitude of blogs and online communities are safe spaces for sharing information and ideas about our daily lives and our worries—topics that would have been shoved under the rug in the past.
Even though negative comments still frequently appear in response to posts about periods, childcare, and beauty regimens, traditionally feminine topics are finally getting the attention they deserve.
However, many women’s health issues are not yet fully understood. Up until very recently, only male subjects were used in medical studies. The menstrual cycle was considered a complicating factor, unnecessary for the study of organs or diseases. This has left women in the dark about many aspects of their health and bodies. For example, we are still learning about the true size and scope of the clitoris in the 21st century. Women’s emotions are still frequently dismissed, and topics such as PMS and menopause continue to be misunderstood, ridiculed, and feared.
As the main target audience for all kinds of lifestyle bloggers whose unchecked advice is presented as the ideal to strive for, women are left to draw their own conclusions.
Both terms denote incomplete or inaccurate information, but there is an important distinction between the two.
Disinformation refers to false information presented with a conscious intention to deceive. The presenter is aware that what they are saying is incomplete or just plain wrong, but they still choose to present lies as truth. Disinformation is usually spread with a specific goal in mind, for example to sell something, to push an agenda, to inflate someone’s qualifications, or to harm competitors.
The importance of halitosis, or bad breath, was famously exaggerated in the early 20th century to create a market for an antiseptic to be sold as mouthwash. The use of scientific sounding name for a common problem in sensationalised advertising helped the company’s profits skyrocket. While mouthwash may be a decent product, the effectiveness of this subversive sales strategy is still inspiring profit-hungry hucksters today.
These days we often hear about disinformation in the context of fake news or some political agenda, but businesses and influencers have a clear profit incentive to lie, even or especially when they know the products they need to move are not that great.
Misinformation is wrong or incomplete information disseminated without malicious intent or a desire to deceive. Someone spreading misinformation online might still be hoping to attract attention with a big, new, shocking idea, but they are not spreading lies on purpose—they may be lazy, neglectful, or simply unaware.
For example, irresponsibly unsustainable diet and workout routines from influencers with more enthusiasm than experience often falls into the misinformation category. Unfortunately, it’s “buyer beware”. In such cases, due diligence and fact-checking falls to followers who want to emulate a particular lifestyle without knowing all the facts about the influencer’s life.
Modern-day folklore and urban legends spread across social media like wildfire. If someone promises to have found the best homemade remedy for PMS, acne, or the common cold, people will share it. Young people sometimes discover an old method of doing something that has long since been debunked; lacking awareness they can give crummy old myths rich new lives online.
Much of what is published online focuses on popularity and share-ability rather than providing access to reliable information. Controversial factoids and thoroughly debunked myths are given the spotlight with the help of catchy songs or clickbait-y titles to attract views. Sensationalizing can be fun in the context of ghost stories or celebrity gossip, but health misinformation can have real consequences.
Information about women’s health has traditionally been passed along as folk wisdom, beliefs, and sayings for millennia. This type of culturally specific information often carries deep intuitive and experiential knowledge, but it can be hard to tell the difference between useful advice and superstition or spurious “old wives’ tales”. Such information should be “taken with a grain of salt”, especially when it comes to self-diagnosis and self-medication.
Many influencers build their brands by providing lifestyle tips for everything from beauty treatments to home improvement ideas to their favourite recipes. What they often don’t provide is evidence-based research backing their advice.
We provide a list of sources at the bottom of every WomanLog article so readers can see where we are getting our information and continue researching. If an online personality you admire shares health-related information, check to see what sources they provide and if there aren’t any, search for the main idea online and double-check your findings before you make a purchase or act on their advice.
The quality of the sources we rely on for information is vital. Making decisions based on unsubstantiated internet claims is about as safe as asking your weird neighbour for advice. How do they know? And what do they get out of telling you these facts?
Whenever our health is at stake, we want the best information possible. This usually means seeking out credible sources that are best positioned to have that information—such as doctors, hospitals, and medical research facilities—and getting more than one opinion to see if there are conflicting views on the topic. After all, we are the ones who must live with the consequences of our health decisions.
Alternative sources can also sometimes provide valuable input, but if the main source for health advice is “vibrations”, “crystals”, your zodiac sign, or other forms of magical thinking, you might want to think twice.
Everybody makes mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes are due to structural errors in thinking called logical fallacies. A few of the most common are:
Cherry picking—when somebody makes an argument using only the facts that suit them, ignoring other evidence. How do you not do this when overwhelmed with information? Again, the quality of your sources key. If two popular influencers are promoting a certain tea for period pain, but five evidence-based medical websites warn you against it, choosing to follow the influencers advice would probably be cherry picking to your detriment.
Causal fallacy—the claim that because one thing followed another, the first caused the second. “Correlation is not causation.” If someone with a health problem used a particular product or treatment and their problem disappeared, that doesn’t necessarily mean that product or treatment provides a reliable curative effect. The change might be due to something else going on at the same time—a literal coincidence—or something related to the way their individual body responded.
For a product or a treatment to be considered safe for medical purposes, it needs to undergo rigorous evidence-based testing, which is something licensed facilities have the resources to do.
Our social media addiction to visually appealing memes, clickbait headlines, and sensationalized soundbites can easily dull our critical thinking skills to allow dozens of logical fallacies to slip by unnoticed and reinforce our biases and mental shortcuts.
Confirmation bias is the tendency we all have to seek out, interpret, and remember facts that support what we already believe, and the availability heuristic leads us to believe that whatever comes to mind easily is also true/important.
When we see the same “facts” shared again and again in viral posts and videos, it is tempting to assume they are true without bothering to investigate even though we know how easy it is to fake information, screenshots, and photos online.
Research into online misinformation has only recently begun, but the work is ongoing and has already identified areas of concern. A study on TikTok videos concerning urology—kidney disease, bedwetting in children, urinary tract infections, and other related topics—revealed that only 22% of videos presented facts that could be substantiated in materials published by the European Association of Urology and none of videos studied citated the sources they used.
The personal touch is alluring. In the competitive online market, influencers are pretty much expected to share appealing personal stories and real-life experiences in every communication. The pressure to be “real” and vulnerable to connect with an audience contributes to the prevalence of strange announcements about the perfect evening routine, DIY face mask, or baby powder alternative.
Influencers can also be afraid to admit they were wrong. This is especially true if the questionable advice being promoted is at the core of their brand message.
Algorithms. The social media and news platform algorithms are becoming more advanced each day. Algorithms are used to compile data about your tastes and then serve up marketing and political content you are likely to view. While this may make finding songs or sweaters you like easier, algorithms also create filter bubbles and echo chambers that can distort our perception of reality.
Although governments and other watchdogs are pressuring social media platforms to be transparent about their algorithms and take steps to hold content creators accountable, the vast sea of online influencers is largely left to its devices and posts are often promoted exactly because they are controversial and attract attention.
Unscientific health advice is often hiding in plain sight, but it is also sometimes cultivated in secretive online communities, only discoverable through specific hashtags and influencers. Pro-anorexia content is sadly still rampant on Tumblr and TikTok where a handful of specific hashtags and code words reveal a community of enablers sharing tips for starving yourself. Similarly unhealthy communities exist for a great variety of fringe interests and conspiracy theories.
The internet is a wild place, so completely avoiding false information is pretty much impossible. What we can do is stay alert and not take advice at face value, especially when it concerns your health. There is no need for paranoia, but healthy scepticism is certainly warranted.
Keep the following questions in mind when browsing social media:
If you do choose to follow online health routines, workouts, or dietary tips do some research and consider consulting your doctor at your next check-up, and definitely stop if you notice any harmful effects.
Download WomanLog now: