I recently had a patient who came to me with depression due to infertility. The couple, both software engineers, were trying hard to conceive since the past four years with no success. They had tried soothsayers, poojas, temples, fasts and vrats along with IVF only to be kept waiting by the Gods of fertility. There was much pressure from both sides of the family to have a child. There were sly taunts, open comments and unasked for suggestions doled out at family functions.Naturally, the woman was upset and  feeling low when she chanced upon a reel on instagram which finally pushed her off the brink into full blown depression.

The video shows a yoga instructor/ life guru/ influencer talk about “energies”. In her lilting soothing voice, she explains that there are feminine energies which keep women well, feminine. She goes on to opine that women nowadays are losing this energy because they are going out to work, stressing themselves out about their careers and trying to fend for themselves in an essentially male domain. She says that this is one of the main causes for problems like hair loss, early menopause and infertility. Basically, if you are working and career oriented, then you can end up infertile!

Now, this patient of mine was highly career oriented and higher paid than her spouse. Watching this reel after a particularly stressful family function, she broke down. She started getting repetitive thoughts that the Gods might have punished her for being career conscious. She obsessively searched for content on the net to disprove this theory only to be bombarded by more similar videos of Godmen and women saying almost the same things. Over the next few months, she lost her sleep, cried buckets and ended up contemplating suicide because she was conflicted about whether to give up a job she loved and enjoyed ( so as to increase her feminine energy) or continue with it and probably remain infertile and the butt of hurtful comments.

This got me thinking. Was the influencer the cause for her depression? She showed me the reel. It had 1715 likes. Did it mean that so many people naively believed this? Would many people think that this was true and end up preventing their daughters from pursuing careers? How could the influencer be so careless to speak about something so complex and delicate, without scientific evidence? I got so tangled in this that I realized that I was under the influence too- of the influencer- I had let her influence my emotions and my thinking process- and hence in some way, was definitely influenced.

It was then that the actual impact of social media hit me. If I, while trying my best to be rational could get my emotions in a knot over an influencer reel, how would it impact the mental health of the vulnerable, the depressed, the hypochondriac, the just retired new user of facebook sexagenerian and so many more.

Fake news is nothing new. In the past however, there was no way for it to spread like the proverbial “wildfire”. Thanks to social media and the culture of liking and sharing, the slew of wrong, malignant and upsetting information that we get exposed to actually spreads and now becomes “viral”.

The results can be a harmless forwarding of “UNESCO has declared our national anthem to be the best” ( which by the way is still making rounds on social media and still untrue) to serious problems like enticing riots, causing mental health problems ( like my patient) and sometimes lead to societal disruption.

A study published in the journal “Nature- human behavior” tries to explain why we believe fake news and random opinions over facts. This happens because of the limitations of the human brain.

When people are overloaded with new information, they tend to rely on less than ideal coping mechanisms to distinguish the correct from the incorrect. The brain decides that whatever is the more popular opinion the truer it is. It feels that the others who have endorsed this news must have done their homework and reached a conclusion that the news is genuine. So, it decides based on popularity rather than authenticity. Unfortunately, the many other brains who have “liked” it, would have done so out of either self interest or tiredness or malicious intent.

Secondly, we tend to befriend like minded people or follow content which pleases our brain. We share and circulate similar stuff. Social media algorithms are sensitive to this. They slowly start showing content which fits into what we generally like seeing or thinking about. At a very low flow of information, a person can still make a logical decision about the genuinity of the content. But when there is an information overload of multiple videos, articles, shorts and reels all showing the same thing, logicality and rational thinking fly out the window in a jiffy. If so many are saying it, it must be true becomes logic.

The third reason is that when we read or hear something disturbing, scandalous or exciting, it causes a dopamine surge in the brain, which then causes an urge to share and forward impulsively.

It is this lethal combination of information overload, short stretched attention spans and a vulnerable tired dopamine starved brain which ends up getting influenced by fake news.

So, how do we protect ourselves from hurting ourselves or potentially causing mental distress to others by forwarding inaccurate stuff?

  • The simplest way is to reduce the time spent on social media.When we are bored, we look for something to push us out of this state. Hence browsing something sensational may feel good. Again, when we are bored we may just keep browsing because we are too lazy to do anything else. Both of these lead to  mindless browsing and forwarding, which might be harmful.

           To avoid this,invest time to decide what content to watch and follow. Curate your social media feed and its influencers. Then, even during mindless browsing, something mindful would be done.

  • Before believing anything earth shattering or mind altering – verify, verify, verify. How do we do it?
  1. On youtube, check the description box to see where the person sourced his information from.
  2. On the gram, check the qualification and validity of the influencer by their bio
  3. On twitter, source information from news sites which have credibility
  4. On whatsapp and facebook, check whether the message is forwarded by the tag on top and use tiplines. Tiplines are numbers verified by the International fact Checking Network (IFCN) and can be used to verify potentially misleading info like photos, videos or voice reels. It is available in english as well as eleven other Indian languages. A few fact check tiplines include AFP, Boom, India today, Factly, quint, Newsmobile etc. The numbers of these are available on the internet. All that you have to do is to send them a whatsapp message with the video in question and they will get back to you after a fact check about its authenticity.
  • Finally, even if something sounds very very believable, verify with a real time expert before applying it immediately to your life. eg. crash diets, fasts, exercises, over the counter meds and investment plans. Anything regarding your health – ask a doctor, regarding your finances- ask your accountant, regarding news- call up your nearest newspaper office. When we have to tell something to a person on a one to one basis, there is a sense of obligation involved to be as near to the truth as possible. Because if the information is wrong, the expert loses credibility and no one wants to risk that happening. Hence, higher the chances of getting more accurate stuff.

The internet is a place where opinions can get converted into truths based on who or how many people like and follow the particular social media celebrity. Being aware of this and spreading awareness to your near and dear ones may spare them of much mental distress in their life.


About the Author

Preethi Shanbhag


My name is Preethi Shanbhag. I am a psychiatrist and a mother. In my free time I love to read, write, travel and cook.

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