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Web Science Institute

Promotion of harmful alternative cancer treatments on Twitter: network and content characteristics

Overview

Medical approaches and treatments developed outside science-based medicine are often the object of highly polarised debates, with ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’ presenting arguments for or against their legitimacy and effectiveness. Supporters of alternative medicine and treatments defend them as holistic, natural, curative, preventive, and enhancing of self-healing capacities; however, the medical research community has repeatedly clarified that there cannot be two kinds of medicine – conventional and alternative: there is only medicine that has been adequately tested and works; all the rest has not been tested and therefore may or may not work. While some alternative health practices might be beneficial to individuals’ physical, psychological and spiritual needs, many forms of non-science-based treatments and approaches can be dangerous and greatly harmful to people’s health, especially when they take the form of frauds or cult-like quackeries. Many fake treatments are directed to people suffering from cancer: a lack of confidence in the public institutions and the public panic towards ‘the big C’ has created over the years a fertile soil for unorthodox alternatives to surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy (described in the ‘quacks’’ jargon as mutilation, burning, and poisoning).

The spread of harmful alternative health practices has been boosted by the commercialisation of the internet, with a number of providers and supporters of potentially dangerous alternative practices promoting fraudulent, dangerous, or useless medical treatments. Social networking sites are particularly affected by this problem, with posts, reviews, or blogs containing treatment promotions.

With a very few exceptions, relatively little attention has so far been paid in the social sciences, as well as in other academic disciplines, to the topic of misleading medical information and specifically of harmful alternative health practices and their harms to people. Criminology in particular should be very concerned with the study of these practices and be at the forefront of the interdisciplinary scientific debate, as some of these approaches are leading to great social harms, with serious repercussions both on the health of people and on their confidence in the medical profession and the scientific method.

By drawing on a variety of digital methods including virtual and visual ethnographies of Twitter posts (scraped by selected relevant keywords, e.g. #naturalcancer; ‘cancer alternative’; etc.) and social network analysis, the proposed research aims to explore and critically analyse the behaviours and structural relationship of actors active in promoting harmful alternative health practices via Twitter, with a specific focus on anti-cancer treatments in the English-speaking online community.  The distribution of harmful alternative health practices via Twitter has not been systematically studied yet, but from preliminary searches it appears that also this social media platform acts as distributor of dangerous health content.

The proposed project is based at the intersection between computational criminology, digital sociology, and health science. The findings of this project are expected to be of interest not only to academics in these disciplines, but also to a wider audience, including health professionals, experts in science communication, and policy makers developing strategies to better address the propagation of dangerous medial information online.

Staff

Principal Investigator: Dr Anita Lavorgna

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