You are here

Counterpublics in Italian Facebook Discussions of Alternative Medicine

The final speaker in this AoIR 2017 session on 'fake news' is Fabio Giglietto, whose focus is on the discussion and dissemination of fake medical news on Facebook. In January 2016, the Italian public affairs TV show Presa Diretta covered alternative cancer treatments in a highly critical way, and further discussed these matters on its Facebook page; the present project examined the debate that ensued. This ties to broader concerns about public distrust in conventional medicine, and the online promotion of alternative treatments.

Personal experience is an important argument in such debates, and online audiences draw on such experiences to claim a greater agency in medical matters than they are generally awarded in direct engagements with the health system. This can manifest in health counterpublics that draw on personal experiences and external sources to argue for or against alternative medicines.

The project examined some 35 posts related to the episode, which generated some 4,600 comments (29% before, 28% during, and 42% after the airing of the show). These comments were coded for a number of content features. Sentiment towards alternative medicines were mainly negative (52%), and comments mainly responded to other commenters (65%), indicating that there was substantial debate. Users with positive attitudes towards alternative medicines represented some 21% of all participants, and they commented considerably more (5.1 comments on average) than the 57% negative commenters (3.7 comments) or the 22% neutral commenters (1.5 comments).

Over the course of the discussion, the number of negative contributors grew (from 46% before to 61% during and 60% after the show, while neutral contributors declined (34% to 16% to 18%). Positive contributors remained stable, so they clearly were not affected by the show's negative framing of alternative medicines. Positive commenters also cited external sources in some 22% of their comments, while negative commenters only did so in 16% of their contributions.

Negative comments mainly drew on established scientific sources, while positive comments used non-scientific publications and partisan Websites. Positive commenters also highlighted their own personal experience in 17% of comments (highlighting their cancer experience, freedom of choice in treatments, and direct testimony), while negative commenters only drew on personal experience in 7% of their comments. Conventional science was also positioned as exclusive and normative by supporters of alternative medicines.

This documents that counterpublics may be more active, use more external references, and more personal experience in their arguments, but use both in different ways from their opponents.