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Social Media Can Alter Research Aims, And Not for the Better

Social Media Can Alter Research Aims, And Not for the BetterA natural experiment on the use of social media has shown how the power of social media and the limited scientific knowledge of the population at large can impact research, and not necessarily in a good way.

The story begins in 2008 when Dr. Paulo Zamboni, an Italian surgeon, suggested that multiple sclerosis was not an autoimmune disease but rather a vascular disease caused by blockages in the brain. He proposed unblocking the veins by mechanically widening them — what he calls the “liberation procedure.”

His hypothesis gathered little public attention, except in Canada, where more than 500 Facebook pages, groups or events devoted to the theory have been created with tens of thousands of followers.

A poll shows more than half of Canadians are familiar with the theory. Stories about it have appeared in the media almost weekly since The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper, wrote about it in November 2009, and it was featured on the CTV public affairs program “W5.”

Researchers note the reports have sparked a national debate about whether publicly funded trials should be conducted and whether MS patients should have immediate, publicly funded access to the vein-widening treatment known as venoplasty.

The problem with this outcry is that Canadian physicians and researchers do not advocate the approach. And, in fact, several studies have failed to replicate Zamboni’s original findings.

Nevertheless, there is widespread demand in Canada for clinical trials. A discussion of the controvery is provided in a study published in the journal Nature.

“Indeed, the case indicates the unprecedented pressures scientists, politicians and funders worldwide can now face to alter research priorities even in the absence of credible scientific evidence,” the authors said.

Experts believe the new social media environment calls for researchers and clinicians to more actively engage with the public, articulating the importance of science in determining the benefits and harm of novel treatments – and to ensure that patients’ concerns and priorities are heard.

The viral spread of information by social media calls makes it even more important to improve the knowledge level or scientific literacy of the general population.

“When patient groups are using social media to advocate and mobilize, scientists must employ similarly effective tools to communicate,” the authors said.

Source: St. Michael’s Hospital

Social Media Can Alter Research Aims, And Not for the Better

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Social Media Can Alter Research Aims, And Not for the Better. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Apr 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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