Snake oil, bone-shakers and witch-doctors 2.0

This is the first of two pieces on the subject of using the internet to find reliable information regarding things connected with health.

Over the weekend I was searching online for information about which foods are a good source of different kinds of vitamins and minerals. Not for myself, but for one of my kids.

It was, I thought initially, a pretty straightforward thing to look for online.

But what happened next enabled me to see the internet in all its naked glory.

My first encounter with the internet was 20 years ago and these days I am rarely offline, except when I am asleep – much to the occasional chagrin of those around me.

Consequently I consider myself to be pretty savvy when it comes to using the internet. A digital native, if you will. I am well versed in finding what I want online and quickly navigating my way through the many pools of information therein, some deep and some not so.

But the food search episode was quite the revelation. Pretty much all the results returned by Google (which has been my weapon of choice for searching since 1998 and is likely to remain as such for the foreseeable) were from websites that looked at best questionable as sources of information and at worst downright misleading.

How, I asked myself, am I supposed to be able to tell in whom I should place my trust?

I trawled through page after page, site after site, and came to the conclusion that I couldn’t figure that one out. So I ignored them all, preferring to remain in blissful ignorance.

This, I realised, is what it must be like to be unfamiliar with the internet and to trust in the validity of all the search results Google delivers you.

One of the most enduring changes the internet has brought about is the democratisation of publishing. Anyone with an opinion, a computer and an internet connection can publish those opinions and, potentially, gather around them an audience of believing readers.

This is a good thing.  And also a not-so-good thing.