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Charlatans of the Digital Age


By Lucy Johnstone – Guest Writer


Ah the internet. The World Wide Web. Information highway of facts, thoughts, images and opinions. And sadly, home to a growing group of people without any credentials, marketing themselves as life changing healers, coaches and practitioners.

I chose the word “charlatan” in the title for this piece of writing because it perfectly describes a certain type of “influencer” that pollutes my feed with their opinion on what I should eat, drink and even how I should think and act in order to live my “best life”, and, the most important part, charging for “more information”.  A charlatan is a person who practices deception in order to obtain money, fame or other advantages using pretence. These unqualified “healers”, “practitioners”, “coaches” and “influencers” are the charlatans of the digital age. 

That’s right folks. No need for degrees or qualifications of any sort these days, all you need is a page on the internet and you can claim to possess the power to change peoples lives, coach them, create personal nutritional plans, counsel them and even help them lose weight! Just give yourself a title with any combination of the words “holistic” “coach” “practitioner” “alternative” “wellness” and/or “health” and all of a sudden you’re a miracle worker. 

In between the infernal lists with titles like “Girls most likely to marry their cousin!” Or  “Guys most likely to be eaten by an alligator while on holiday in the Australian Outback!” clogging up my newsfeed is a scourge of these “holistic practitioners” inviting me to hand over hundreds of dollars in exchange for tickets to mindfulness seminars or to be emailed twelve week liver cleanses and “natural” weight loss plans.

I’ve got nothing against an alternative approach to wellness. I’m a huge advocate of homeopathy, acupuncture, meditation and massage. The thing that really rips my nightie is the thought of charlatans posing as “holistic healers” and literally profiting from the insecurities and trusting nature of others. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s dishonesty. Followed closely by taking advantage of the vulnerable. Feel free to share your opinions on how to live a great life. Just don’t pretend to be an expert on spiritual colonoscopy practices or sacred breakfast rituals and charge for your “services”. 

In the early 1900s, John. R. Brinkley became a wealthy man by performing bizarre and dangerous medical procedures such as implanting baby goats testicles into the scrotums of men and injecting coloured water into their buttocks (the men, not the goats). He claimed to have the power to cure impotence, and thanks to the placebo effect, he seemed to be successful for a while, until he was convicted for practicing medicine without a license. 

William Bailey also referred to himself as a healer but had no medical qualification. He founded a company whose chief product was essentially radium dissolved in water, claiming it would provide health and vitality to his patients. One enthusiastic follower who consumed over 1000 bottles of this product died young. His jaw fell off and his autopsy later revealed large holes in his brain and skull.   When people believe something is helping them, despite evidence to the contrary, the situation can become dangerous. In the case of this young man, deadly. 

Fast forward to 2015. US Republican candidate Mike Huckabee promoted a “diabetes solution kit” and condemned mainstream treatments for the disease such as insulin. The kit contained booklets offering advice for eating and exercise, all for the low low price of $19.95.  Popping up on my newsfeed recently was a very similar product to Mr Huckabee’s, a low carb, low sugar diet and exercise plan, claiming to reverse diabetes, obesity and many other health conditions, with “packages” starting at just $300! Luckily for me, I don’t have diabetes and I’m not obese so I was able to resist the temptation of handing over the equivalent of a weeks groceries for this “product”. I wonder though, were I more vulnerable, suffering with an awful disease, or insecure and miserable about my body, would the temptation to hand over money in return for the promise of health have been as easy to resist? 

My breastfeeding years are well behind me, but that doesn’t prevent me from receiving sponsored posts from a local self proclaimed “breastfeeding expert” claiming to increase milk production with her patented “lactation cookies”. These types of products are potentially dangerous. Without their lactation issues being overseen by a qualified professional, breastfeeding women could be consuming products or following advice which masks other more serious conditions or, at worst, actually does more harm than good. Tired, worried new mothers who want to feed their baby the natural way, and an unqualified “practitioner” wanting to make a profit. The cookie recipe could also be a recipe for disaster. 

I wonder, how often do people hand over their hard earned cash, without checking to see whether their chosen “life coach” or “mindful eating expert” actually has qualifications in nutrition, counselling or indeed… anything? Or are we unknowingly paying for radium infused water or goats testicles and lining the pockets of some charlatan while the placebo effect gives the illusion of success? 

I conducted some research into twelve wellness peddlers who are practicing within a ten kilometre radius of my home, and found that only one of them mentions having any credentials. The rest simply refer to themselves as “coach”, “practitioner” and even “expert” without qualifications, or even mention of any relevant experience, to back their claims up. It seems that a little charisma, a well groomed Instagram feed and the placebo effect are keeping the charlatans of the digital age doing a roaring trade in trickery.

Call me old fashioned but if you choose to call yourself as an “expert” in something, shouldn’t you possess a tertiary degree and massive amount of experience? Similarly if you refer to yourself as “qualified”, shouldn’t you have some, um, qualifications in the area? 

If people are going to dispense advice, and charge for that service, they should’ve earned the right, otherwise they’re just profiting from the misfortune and insecurities of the vulnerable. It’s swindling. It’s exploitation. Its actually rather dangerous. It’s got to stop and the best way to put the fraudulent “practitioners” out of business is to become more discerning as consumers. 

Before you hand over your hard earned cash, in the hopes of losing weight, increasing your level of happiness or changing your life in some way, I suggest you do two things. Firstly, research the credentials of the “practitioner” whose services you’re using. If they don’t actually have any credentials, they’re probably a charlatan and you should invest your money elsewhere. 

My second suggestion is to look within. The charlatans rely heavily on the placebo effect to achieve “successful results” because the  mind is incredibly powerful. So powerful that patients taking sugar pills can have an improvement in symptoms. So powerful that men actually changed from impotent to virile after their goats testicle implantation surgeries. Not because goats testicles cure impotence, but because the implantees believed they would. 

Remember, the person with the true potential to change your life is you, and it starts in your mind. While it’s great to seek help and support to reach your goals, nothing will happen without the magic that you and only you can bring. You deserve the best, so be discerning about the advice you accept from strangers on the internet, especially those who charge for it. Your hard earned cash may be doing nothing more than feeding the ego of a fraudulent person posing as something they’re not. Do your research and make your body and mind a charlatan free zone. Together we can put these quacks out of business. They don’t deserve our time or our money. 



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