Onions can protect you from swine flu (An Ecademy Blog Discussion)

The wonder of social media is that it creates the ideal environment for meaningful exchanges on timely and often thought-provoking subjects.

What makes these kinds of exchanges work (re useful and collectively beneficial) is the “recognition that the key therefore is not in the conclusion but in the dialogue and honest exchange of information.”

Against this backdrop I am pleased to share with you the following dialogue from the Ecademy Blog regarding onions, swine flu and journalistic accountability:

Ann G:


Just place an onion in a bowl in each rooms of your home, and it will soak up all the viruses in the atmosphere and you won’t get sick.

I know it’s true, I read it on the internet. Skepchick’s hairdresser told her all about it – here.

Actually, what I really wanted to talk about, is social media and how it is being used to promote medical products and advice – both mainstream and alternative.

The FDA in America is holding a public hearing on November 12th to 13th about the use of social media to promote what they describe as “regulated medical products” – and I look forward to reading about the conclusions they reach.

Here on Ecademy, the blogs are frequently used to discuss all kinds of issues around health and medicine. Some bloggers post news items for discussion about the latest research. Others talk about a variety of treatment approaches – from hypnosis to herbal cures, homeopathy to dietary advice.

Of course we are all adults, and we understand the pricinciple of caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.

However, I’ve seen marketplace listings promising “00 per cent guaranteed weight loss” which I suspect is certainly guaranteed to make your wallet weigh less, and I’ve seen an Ecademy blogger suggest that mental illness is caused by demons and can be cured by exorcism rather than psychiatric help, and I seem to recall a blog which claimed that reiki could heal a dead cat. I’ve even seen one idiot claim that onions can prevent swine flu wink

The official line on Ecademy is that these are all matters of opinion, and that Ecademy management cannot be responsible for deciding which of these claims are true. Ecademy does have guideliens about blogging, listed here in Graham Jones’ very useful guide to blogging

What should you avoid in blogs?
Blogs should be acceptable to all readers. That doesn’t mean they can’t be controversial or
annoying, but they shouldn’t upset readers. All blog entries are monitored and Ecademy will
remove entries which
• are designed to cause distress to others, either explicitly or implied
• are sarcastic or cynical in nature or that are aggressive or disrespectful to others
• use swearwords
• attack a person, business, political or religious belief or a country
• infringe copyright
• are potentially libellous
• may break any other law, such as incitement to racial hatred, or sexual abuse
• are connected with promoting gambling
Complaints against your blog by other members of Ecademy may also result in your blog
entry being deleted

I would like to see an addition to this list, about the responsible blogging of health and medical issues. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that anyone should be diagnosing or prescribing through an Ecademy blog, but perhaps it would be useful to ask that all health bloggers at least include a disclaimer, recommending that readers consult their medical practitioner before following any advice.

What do you think?

I am not affiliated with the Onion Marketing Board, nor am I a Grand Master Onion Therapy Practitioner, although I am contemplating signing up for the weekend course

Jon H:

So that’s why there are bowls of cut up onions throughout the house?

The point you bring up is quite interesting Ann because you are getting to the heart of the questions the FTC is trying to address with tighter regulations of what bloggers write through increased accountability, and their upcoming roundtable discussions and workshops in early December to determine “How Will Journalism Survive in the Internet Age.” In short, they are trying to get a handle on what is called the Citizen Journalist.

Citizen Journalism, much like this blog you have posted has been facilitated by the advent of social networks. The problem of course is how do you control a medium where the entry points into the public is no longer narrowly confined to traditional media.

There are of course no easy answers as discovered in a series I am doing on my radio show (this week I will doing a special titled “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age” which is a guest panel discussion that includes UK-based expert David Cushman, and the champion of the new breed of journalism Cenk Uygur, host of the Young Turks).

That said the new FTC legislation in which Bloggers are accountable for fully disclosing endorsement or sponsorship deals relating to a product or company about which they talk was a long time coming. The hearings by the FDA are just another example of how the government is making earnest efforts to create a model of accountability for a medium that has and is growing faster than their ability to regulate.

As I had raised in an earlier post, the issue I have is not so much the intent but the model legislative action will utilize. Specifically, there is a vast difference in many key areas between traditional monitoring and holding accountable traditional media and social media.

In this regard I will close with an excerpt from the above referenced post:

“. . . I stand by my earlier statement that the true measure of a blog must always come down to the caliber or quality of its content – plain and simple. This is the only true way in which any blog content should be vetted.

In this way, I agree with Ecademy co-founder and author Penny Power who in the June 4th PI Window on Business Show indicated that the market re readers, listeners, social networking connections are the best ones to filter content. If the substance isn’t there, or the accuracy of reporting is left wanting or even for that matter the honest opinion of the writer fails to deliver meaningful and accurate insight, the community will ultimately tune them out.”

Ann G:

Some very interesting points, Jon, thank you.

The problem for me lies in your final sentence –

If the substance isn’t there, or the accuracy of reporting is left wanting or even for that matter the honest opinion of the writer fails to deliver meaningful and accurate insight, the community will ultimately tune them out.”

I consider myself to be a reasonably good judge of content, but I am not a scientist and my opinions on whether or not onions are good for you carry little weight.

There is lots of talk about the “wisdom of the crowd” – and on some issues the crowd may be right. But not on all of them.

In her fascinating article in Wired, Amy Wallace talks about the Epidemic of Fear around the vaccine issue

And if you need a new factoid to support your belief system, it has never been easier to find one. The Internet offers a treasure trove of undifferentiated information, data, research, speculation, half-truths, anecdotes, and conjecture about health and medicine. It is also a democratizing force that tends to undermine authority, cut out the middleman, and empower individuals. In a world where anyone can attend what McCarthy calls the “University of Google,” boning up on immunology before getting your child vaccinated seems like good, responsible parenting. Thanks to the Internet, everyone can be their own medical investigator….

The bottom line: Pseudo-science preys on well-intentioned people who, motivated by love for their kids, become vulnerable to one of the world’s oldest professions. Enter the snake-oil salesman.

The internet may be a powerful democritising force for good, especially in matters of political freedom.

But as Ms Wallace says, rational is hard, emotional is easy. And these are difficult questions that require expertise, and are not solvable by the wisdom of the crowd, or what your gran used to do, or your hairdresser says.

Jon H:

Good points Ann, but it goes to accountability.

Turning 50 this year, I grew up in an era where you believed what you read in the papers, heard on the radio (with the exception of Osron Welles’ War of the Worlds), trusting that the reporting individuals went through the prerequisite schooling and filtering system to be considered reliable sources.

In the world of social media combined with the fact that for all intents and purposes daily newspapers will be gone within 5 years, we have a greater responsibility to act as our own filters of information.

This means that content is king, and that there is greater demand on each and everyone of us to take a more active role is ascertaining the veracity of what we ingest through the media.

Regarding the H1N1 and onion example here is a link to a recent article I wrote titled “Is There a Vaccine for Social Media?

After reading it, and of course putting aside the fact that I wrote it, if you read it what would your think? Would you rely upon its findings re H1N1, the vaccine etc?

Ann G:

It seems like a reasonably balanced article, Jon, and you finish with your uncertainty. As a rule of thumb, I find that snake oil salesmen, or anti vaccine extremists, are more likely to be absolutely certain of the truths they proclaim.

But I don’t know what your background is, I don’t know why you chose the particular writers and scientists you quoted. The appeal to authority isn’t quite adequate- because of course Linus Pauling was a well respected Nobel Prize winning scientist, and yet his views on the curative powers of vast quantities of Vitamin C are highly suspect.

Of course we all have to learn to assess the quality of information for ourselves. I tend to doubt everything, but of course haven’t got time to check everything out in detail – which is where those rules of thumb come in handy.

We are clearly of the same generation, but I certainly don’t recall accepting everything in print was gospel. I recall reading an article in my Gran’s News of The World when I was very young, that said two out of every three households had been affected by serious violent crime in the previous year and things were getting worse. After a frisson of fear, I quickly reliased it must be nonsense, just by what I knew about my own street.

And I was only twelve or so when I read Ercih von Danikin, and chuckled at his argument that technologically advanced aliens must have visited Earth with their X Ray machines, as how else did the cave painters know that people had skeletons?

Of course we all have to take responsibility, but we simply aren’t all capable of it. We are not all experts in understanding scientific papers, and sadly, this often includes the scientists.

Jon H.

That of course is the starting point of and for true vigilance . . . asking questions. I am not talking about the Oliver Stone type of cynicism, but instead the balanced and sincere effort to understand.

From there you may not always make the right decision, but you will at least make an honest and informed decision.

What I liked most about your comment was the statement that “But I don’t know what your background is, I don’t know why you chose the particular writers and scientists you quoted.” As a writer, this is for me the best scenario in that by your thoughtful consideration you add both value and perspective that refines the communication and information sharing process.

My job is not to make you see the world my way, but is instead to alert you as a reader of other possibilities and in the process cause you to think outside of the framework within which you are most familiar and most comfortable. The conclusion still remains yours to reach.

I am not infallible. I can tell you that this was the basis for my research and for me and my family was the critical gap in information we needed to finally make the decision to have our children immunized. But that was the conclusion my wife and I reached.

Alternatively, you may decide that the information warrants a different decision.

What I am saying, and what you so adeptly pointed out regarding Linus Pauling is that absolutes are always suspect because of the natural presence of personal opinion, experience, self interest and prejudices. The key therefore is not in the conclusion but in the dialogue and honest exchange of information.

In short, honesty and accuracy is of greater importance than proving I am right, and trying to convince you of the same.

In the infamous words of Joe Friday . . . just the facts and I will leave it in your hands to interpret their real meaning as it relates to you.

Sally C. then joined in on the discussion offering the following opinion:

“I would like to see an addition to this list, about the responsible blogging of health and medical issues.”

Hear, hear, Ann.

I also agree with Jon that people should disclose any financial relationships that are relevant to any topic they are blogging about, not just health or medicine related issues.

In this day and age authenticity, openness and transparency should be a given, but frequently are not.

If someone is flogging mobile phones or some product and service in their blog, but does not disclose they are a paid consultant to the company, it certainly muddies the waters somewhat and the FTC guidelines are a welcome starting point in this respect. Self regulation is all very well, but it seems that many do not manage such a simple task.

The FDA hearing in 2 weeks is a welcome and much needed event in response to Pharma companies continually asking for guidance and direction. The FDA clearly believes that current (print) guidelines are more than adequate in a ‘it’s the message not the medium’ approach but clearly you can’t put fair balance and the abbreviated PI in 140 character tweet, for example! If anyone is interested in following the proceedings, you can find it all on Fabio Gratton’s excellent resource here.

One thing I would add to the debate is to remind people that in Europe, DTC ie direct to consuming advertising of medicinal products is illegal, so anyone flogging vitamin or herb pills or other health related pills and potions for financial gain, whether by direct ads or indirectly via blogs to members of the general public is actually breaking the law and could be sued for doing so. This applies in the UK and EC but not the USA, where DTC is legal as long as fair balance (ie mentioning the side effects) is provided.

If you wouldn’t expect an ad for onions protecting you from swine flu in the BMJ you wouldn’t expect to see it on a blog platform either.


Since this article was originally posted, the discussion has gained considerable momentum, with new trains of thought and opinions being introduced into the exchange.   Do you have an opinion or insights on this interesting topic that you would like to share? Click on the Ecademy icon below and be heard.


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