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Fake News and Snake Oil

For the sake of simplifying our analysis, let’s divide the world into two halves: the trustworthy and the fraudsters. While it’s true that dividing the world cleanly in half is never accurate, it’s certainly a helpful lens to use when considering online news and online shopping: there’s a huge abundance of sources of news, and virtually unlimited online shops to choose from. There’s no need to be careful: if something gives off a bad vibe, don’t waste a second tossing that option out. At the same time, if there’s an online seller that you trust, you don’t need to constantly review them with vigilance: it’s fine to just purchase from them without extreme vigilance. There’s great safety in numbers, as we’ll see.

A base of scientific trust
There are plenty of extremely well studied, well understood and well accepted foods, dietary supplements, and over-the-counter medicines that are used by millions of people around the world. Take for example, creatine monohydrate: it’s one of the most studied substances in history, and has been shown to be purely beneficial in almost all cases, and is most popular with body builders and athletes who are focused on strength. In a similar vein, nitric oxide powder has been shown to be safe & effective, and readily available from many trusted sellers online. There’s simply no need to agonize over these substances: they’re produced reliably, at high quality, and are relatively affordable. This well-formed consensus has been built on the back of the scientific method, double-checked by the peer-review-process, and bolstered by the watchful eye of the FDA and other authorities, who frequently ban any would-be dangerous products from the market.

Snake oil
However, aside from these trusted products, there are certainly people in the world whose sole goal is to amass money, by any means necessary. They’ll sell you a pig in a poke, or it’s modern day equivalent: a pill that will not only cure you of cancer, arthritis and autism, but also promises to align your heart chakra, and banish evil spirits, at no additional cost. These “miracle” products that claim to cure everything are an outright scam. Identifying them can be hard, however. To an untrained eye, they can appear to be legitimate medicines. One tell-tale sign of danger, is the “cure-all” nature of their claims. Another is an excessively high price. You’ll notice that the most widely used and widely trusted supplements and medicines claim and aim to solve or assist with exactly one specific function or problem. Tylenol is used only for pain relief, and, importantly, it’s cheap. There are a number of other factors that should ring alarm bells for any would-be online shopper, but we won’t detail them here.

Fake News
How we decide to trust certain products, and not others, is an interesting topic. Celebrity endorsements are common, because they bring a trusted face and a known (even, loved) character into association with a pharmaceutical company, or a supplement brand. One other source of recommendation that we all trust is the mainstream news. Up until recent years most people implicitly trusted the words of the news anchor and the stories they voiced. A similar (but lesser) trust has been placed in online articles, regardless of their source. But now, with the advent of fake news, and increasingly widespread awareness of fake news, people have turned away from their Facebook feed. Let’s take an example, the most recent and most pressing case being, of course, fake news about COVID-19 cures, and fake preventative medicine or supplement advice. With people all around the country desperate for some solution to the COVID problem, people are willing to suspend their disbelief and make a wild grab for any potential solution, however implausible. Recently, a Missouri man has faced charges for promoting content online that made unproven and misleading claims about certain supplements. Specifically, the unsubstantiated (and unproven) claim was that taking a certain mix of vitamin D and zinc supplements would prevent you from contracting or suffering from COVID-19. What motive could someone have for making such claims? Of course, the advertiser of these claims naturally sold the exact supplements mentioned in the promised solution, so we can safely assume that they were at least motivated by financial gain at the expense of vulnerable and fearful consumers at a moment when they needed real medical advice and real protective advice. You can of course, do your own research to find out the truth and debunk these claims.

Steps you can take
As mentioned earlier in the article, one highly effective method you can use to avoid being scammed, is simply to not buy any supplement or medicine unless you are already aware of it’s wide use, safety and justified cost. While that’s quite simple to follow and takes little effort or research, it is extremely limiting. That doesn’t cover all cases: most people don’t go to the gym, and so they don’t take popular and safe supplements like those two mentioned above. So you would miss out if you only applied this measure. You also need to be able to judge for yourself, and do a little bit of research. For supplements that are generally recognized as safe, you won’t have much difficulty finding peer-reviewed articles that confirm “no adverse side effects” are to be had. You can also ask your doctor, or a pharmacist, for advice about your specific needs.

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