There’s a scourge eating away at the quality of online journalism. It’s not just the partisan news outlets, the well-disguised native advertising, or the websites full of off-the-wall rants; it’s sites that publish such a range of material that the good reporting is indistinguishable from the bad.
Take The Mind Unleashed, a relatively young news outlet with millions of “Likes” on Facebook. Placing eye-catching visuals front and center, TMU is attractive and colorful. Boasting the slogan, You are encouraged to think freely and question everything, it targets an educated, spiritually attuned audience—striking a chord, perhaps, among millennials looking for an alternative to mainstream media.Though it doesn’t refer to itself as a “science” purveyor, TMU relies heavily on scientific studies. It doesn’t always represent those studies accurately, however, and with article categories like “Paradigm Shift” and “World Truth” right alongside “Health” and “Science and Tech,” it’s handing shaky pseudoscience a megaphone just as loud as the one it offers to legitimate scientific discovery.
Pseudoscience and bad reporting aren’t new. But I have generally been able to filter them out of my life. In the last year, however, TMU has quietly crept into my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Nine of my friends—nine people who have passed my own intelligence, sanity and personality tests—are among the 2-year-old website’s 6.2 million Facebook followers.
If TMU has slipped through their “B.S.” filters, where else can it infiltrate? Is it influencing the public discussion on science in any meaningful way? Or will it eventually blow over, like any of a thousand failed news outlets of the past?
I can dismiss pseudoscience on virally popular sites like Reddit. But pseudoscience in my social circle? Now it’s personal.
Fear-Mongering UnleashedA friend of mine recently shared an article entitled “Ebola – What You’re Not Being Told.” Its catchy title beckons readers with the promise of a scandalous cover-up. But beneath that, it just preys on fear.
The article focuses on a 2012 paper published in Nature in which Ebola was reportedly transferred from pigs to macaques housed in separate cages within the same laboratory. The findings suggest that Ebola can be spread without direct contact, at least between these two species. It’s almost certainly alarming, but any inferences about how Ebola might be spread between humans remain purely speculative.
Not only does the unnamed TMU author present speculation as fact, (s)he even blatantly misuses the term “airborne” after repeating a researcher’s hypothesis that the virus was spread via large droplets.
“Translation: Ebola IS an airborne virus. …
UPDATE: Someone pointed out that in medical terms, if the virus is transferred through tiny droplets in the air this would technically not be called an ‘airborne virus’. … On one hand this is a question of semantics, and the point is well taken, but keep in mind that the study did not officially determine how the virus traveled through the air, it merely established that it does travel through the air … Essentially I am using the word ‘airborne’ as a layman term.”
This kind of manipulative reporting is not only shoddy; it’s irresponsible. It propagates a sense of distrust in the very institutions on which our society must rely for accurate health information.
The Mind Unleashed first blipped onto my radar in late 2013, when a friend shared an article on Facebook entitled “97% of Terminal Cancer Patients Previously Had This One Procedure.” I was curious—so I clicked.
That one procedure? A root canal. The author, “Dr. Mercola”—an osteopathic doctor whose first name appears nowhere on his website except for his medical license—supports this claim with little actual data, omitting both the source of his “97%” figure and the prevalence of root canals in people who don’t die of cancer. He does, however, fill his prose with unsupported, hyperbolic statements and false claims.
To be fair, TMU did not publish this article; it shared it on Facebook. This is a gray area in the social media world: while a “share” should not be mistaken for any level of fact-checking, it still implies support of the general message. It doesn’t matter if TMU’s social media editor actually read the article: the share gave it a TMU thumbs-up. And that should be reason enough to throw anything else with the TMU brand into the “Beware: Pseudoscience” junk bin.
Even more dangerous than an outlet that touts pseudoscience is an outlet that does so inconsistently. As The Mind Unleashed has gained popularity, it has upped its share of articles highlighting legitimate scientific findings and achievements. Buried among stories about UFOs and anti-vaccinating celebrities are articles on alternative energy and advances in 3D printing. Many others, like the Ebola story above, twist research from reputable journals out of shape and into something not quite right.
The stealth threat is real and potent. Readers drawn into TMU by a decently reported article on the harmful effects of pesticides could easily step over the line between journalism and pseudoscience and find themselves hooked into an essay on the reasons to avoid antibiotics.
I’m not the first person to have noticed this website’s red flags. In an article entitled “How Conspiracy Nuts are Duping Well-Meaning Liberals,” an author at Forward Progressives explains how TMU and other outlets break the mold of typical pseudoscience pushers. Bruce, the author of the blog Rousing Departures, claims that TMU “lures people in with affirmations, platitudes of dubious worth, plagiarized conspiracy theorist memes, and dangerous medical misinformation served up as wisdom.” Bruce feels so strongly about the site that he’s written a form letter to help people ask their Facebook friends to stop following it.
In contemplating the future of TMU, I can’t help but think of Buzzfeed and Upworthy, two viral news sites that in their earlier days won over social media with fluffy “click-bait” overlying questionable journalistic standards. The jury’s still out as to whether they should be fully embraced as “journalism,” but as they grew, both sites expanded to contain more reporters with journalistic integrity.
For TMU, I’d like to see how this teetering between good and bad shakes out. If more and more intelligent readers get pulled in, which will triumph: the poor reporting and sexy headlines that attracted readers in the first place, or the good reporting that is almost certainly, if not implicitly, in high demand?
When it comes to my own friends, however, it might be time to stage an intervention. And in case I can’t do it myself, Bruce has me covered.