With the growth of digital technology and a cultural milieu increasingly advocating for self-promotion and triumphant individualism, comes the ascent of social media influencers and the sharp dismantling of what were once knowledge monopolies. Over the past years, SMIs has been continually gaining vast impact on the individual decision making. They’re acting as quasi-experts and assuming roles traditionally reserved for highly trained specialists (such as doctors and dieticians). As James Hamblin wrote in The Atlantic, hyperbolically perhaps, ‘the idea of a lone consultant becoming, in three short years, more influential than entire university departments of Ph.Ds., is indicative of a new level of potential for celebrity in health messaging’. This begs the question, “are influencers fitness and diet advices to be trusted?”
The shocking truth
A study conducted by a team at University of Glasgow found that just one out of nine leading bloggers in UK who makes weight management claims actually provided accurate and trustworthy information.
The health researchers studied the country’s most popular influencers. The study was based on those who have more than 80,000 followers on at least one social media site, verification from at least two sites such as Twitter, and who have an active weight management blog. They were analyzed and scored against 12 criteria to demonstrate credibility. The university team examined whether the health and diet claims made by influencers were transparent, trustworthy, nutritionally sound and included evidence-based references. Influencers were regarded as having “passed” the test if they met 70 per cent or more of the criteria. Researchers also examined the latest 10 meal recipes from each blog for energy content, carbohydrates, protein, fat, saturated fat, fibre, sugar and salt content.
Opinion > Facts
Lead researcher Christina Sabbagh stated that their findings show that the majority of the blogs could not be considered credible sources of weight management information. In fact, they often presented opinion as fact and failed to meet UK nutritional criteria. In addition, she asserted that this is potentially harmful as these blogs reach such wide audience.
The authors concluded: “Social media influencers’ blogs are not credible resources for weight management. Popularity and impact of social media in the context of the obesity epidemic suggests all influencers should be required to meet accepted scientifically or medically justified criteria for the provision of weight management advice online.”
The destructive power of social media
Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “This study adds to the evidence of the destructive power of social media.”
These practices capitalize on the apparent democratization of media production and distribution. Even if social media influencers have our best interest at heart, inspire us and offer low-cost online nutritional information: their contribution to the wellness industry is still questionable. There is no industry guidelines to ensure the quality of information they put out in the media which can be misleading and promote actions that leads to suboptimal outcomes. Given the strong influence of social media influencers have on opinion and behavior formation of their audience, it’s vital for them to meet accepted scientifically or medically justified criteria before providing weight management advice on various social media platforms.
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