Who can you trust on online health forums?

The perils of "Münchausen by internet".

For all the benefits that search engines and online support groups have brought to patients – especially in an era of shrinking health budgets and stretched front-line services – the collision of health care and social media has highlighted a number of thorny issues. The internet is notoriously patchy as a source of health advice, for a start, with nervous users often vulnerable to "cyberchondria", the kind of hysteria that can transform an innocent mole into a malignant tumour or a minor rash into a life-threatening bout of meningitis.

Among the more pernicious phenomena that put today's online patients at risk is a pattern of behaviour known as "Münchausen by internet" (MBI), an online variant of Münchausen syndrome. Where old-fashioned, non-digital Münchausen sufferers feign illnesses in hospitals and GP's offices, MBI involves posting faked stories on internet support forums in an attempt to elicit sympathy and support from other users.

MBI, a term coined by the US psychiatrist Marc Feldman but still unrecognised by the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), has gained widespread media attention through a series of high-profile cases, one of the most recent being that of a teenage girl who, it was revealed last November, adopted the fictitious persona of a mother caring for her cancer-stricken daughter, stringing along the Macmillan cancer support forum for more than two years before the deception finally unravelled.

MBI falls into the hazy nether-region between the wider culture of online trolling and a genuine psychiatric condition. Whether a user lying on health forums is motivated by simple malice or deeper psychiatric issues, the fact remains that it's a lot easier to mislead a supportive online community than a doctor and the consequences are more serious. Whereas doctors are equipped to deal with hypochondriacs and fakers, people who post on forums are often patients themselves and considerably more vulnerable to abuses of trust.

What's more, the vast, faceless mass of anonymous online communities makes it incredibly difficult to pick out the fakers from their genuine counterparts. Barring the use of plagiarism software to spot suspicious patterns or bolstering privacy settings, which seems to defeat the purpose of public forums, the best defence is a sharp-eyed community, with specialists also calling for formal recognition of MBI as a pattern of behaviour and a more proactive social media stance from health-care authorities. Unfortunately, the internet seems to be throwing up issues such as MBI faster than anyone is equipped to address them. In the meantime, the best advice for health forum users will remain depressingly basic: tread carefully and carry a big grain of salt.

The article can be read in full here. Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

Web of deceit: internet users can be vulnerable to "cyberchondria". Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

 

Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.