For most of you, the name Belle Gibson is already familiar. In 2014, she was on track to become one of the biggest wellness bloggers in the world. Her app, The Whole Pantry, was downloaded 200,000 times in its first month. She had over 200,000 Instagram followers and her debut cookbook had been released in her native Australia and was just about to storm the US and British markets too.
Then it all came crashing down.
See, Belle Gibson's unique selling point was that she had terminal brain cancer. And that she was treating her disease (seemingly successfully) using natural remedies, the results of which she was sharing with her thousands of followers. In fact, as it later came out, Belle had never had cancer. She wasn't physically sick at all. To add insult to injury, hundreds of thousands of pounds that she said she had donated to charity had failed to materialise. In September of last year, she was fined £240,000 for fraudulent claims.
Now, the journalists who uncovered the story have written a book – The Woman Who Fooled The World. It’s a fascinating deep dive into their investigation and it serves as a timely reflection as to why so many of us were taken in by this deception.
“What really struck us was how strongly the subject resonated with people,” says Beau Donelly, co-author of the book along with his colleague Nick Toscano. “We were inundated with emails during the first week... I mean hundreds of hundreds of people. This story touched such a nerve. I’ve never, never experienced a response to any story I’ve written quite like that… It just really pissed people off.”
In 2018, Instagram is full of semi-famous people who use their huge followings to talk about everything from yoga to clean eating, fashion to mental health. But just a few short years ago, the world was a very different place. Belle Gibson was an early adopter of Instagram. She signed up in the days when there was still a clear line between how we defined “celebrity” and “non-celebrity”. The concept of an “influencer” hadn’t yet permeated our awareness. And perhaps that was why people were so trusting. Surely someone that famous wouldn't be allowed to say things that weren't true. “Now that we have all the information, we think people should have picked up on [it],” agrees Beau. “But we weren’t used to seeing [influencers] before and, as a society, we don’t expect people to lie about cancer.”
The transgressions that Beau and Nick uncovered went far deeper than even they as journalists could imagine. First alerted to Belle’s questionable claims by one of her friends, the duo initially held back from reporting on the cancer angle. (“I can’t think of any time in history where a journalist has written a story calling someone out for not having cancer. And if we were wrong...”). The first story they published then, in 2015, was about the missing charity money (about AUS $300,000). However, less than 30 minutes after this first article was published online, questions about Belle’s health were being asked in the comments.
In response, Belle went into damage-control mode on her own channels. “She started editing posts and deleting comments, anything that raised doubts about her cancer diagnosis. At the same time she was purging Facebook, Instagram, any comments that she made.” From here, Beau and Nick were able to push forward with further allegations in more articles. Belle’s book was pulled, a public outcry ensued and her name became toxic.
Now, several years on and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that the origin stories of successful wellness bloggers from this time are all eerily similar. “They all have this personal story that they’ve overcome,” says Beau. This “personal story” could be a disease, an intolerance to a certain food group, a mental health issue. Then the blogger, due to a lifestyle and dietary change, manages to overcome this obstacle and turn things around. “It’s not just ‘health’ [that they gain], but an overall wellness and wellbeing philosophy." Then, they feel compelled to share it with their followers.
For the most successful people, this narrative turns into a lucrative business which can end up in cookbook deals, podcasts and a “cult-like following that hangs off every word”. And there’s nothing entirely wrong with that. The internet is at its best when we use it to help each other. Telling people that “hey this worked for me” is by no means a bad thing, says Beau. “It becomes dangerous when it veers off from personal experience and into a business where [the blogger is] dishing out health advice to people who are desperate.”
“We’ve all found ourselves there,” continues Beau. “My kids have had things like eczema and stuff hospitals don’t actually have anything to offer you for, so you start talking to people, friends and family. Maybe you see a natural healer you heard about through word of mouth, but it becomes very dangerous when you’re taking the advice from someone online who has no qualifications whatsoever and is driven by making a buck.”
People peddling alternative medical ideas is nothing new. What is new, however, is how quickly their word can spread and be taken as gospel. Social media has given people who could never have dreamed of fame the ability to amass a huge audience. Because of these huge followings, the influencers themselves become “newsworthy" to mainstream news outlets. Add to this consumers who often only read headlines and it's easy for false information about health to be spread. In fact, Beau's book has even been the target of misguided hate from people reading the words “Belle Gibson” and “book” in a headline and assuming she’s written another book for profit.
The real medical experts, for their part, are not well-equipped enough to tackle this fake wellness news epidemic themselves. For starters, compared to someone with a million followers, their voices would be likely lost in the ether. But also, as Beau heard over and over again from the experts, doctors, and medical professionals that he interviewed, they do not have the time. “[The medical experts] all came back, pretty much unanimously and said ‘we’re too busy, we’re trying to help people survive. If we wanted to, we could spend our whole day correcting misinformation that’s on the internet.’” That’s how much there is out there.
For Belle’s part, her career is over. Legal action coupled with this book and a now infamous interview on Australia’s 60 Minutes, in which journalist Tara Brown took Belle to task, have ensured that. What isn’t over though is our obsession with wellness. Superfoods, new exercise regimes and vitamin supplements have become regular pub conversation; the wellness industry is worth an estimated €25 billion in the UK alone. And because of that, the possibility of another Belle is not only likely, it’s a certainty.
“There are tons of people lying about having illness,” says Beau. “I received an email just last week asking me to look into another person raising money for so-called cancer treatments.” Belle, he says, was just one in a long list of people doing the same thing.
"What makes her different," he says sadly, "is that she’s one of the few people that got caught.”
Despite many of us not being able to recall a life before the internet, we must remember that it's still a new phenomenon and, because of this, we're still struggling to figure out how to use it safely, how to police it, how much to allow it to impact on our daily lives. Stories like Belle Gibson's must serve as reminders that when our teachers tried to drill into us that you can't trust everything you read on the internet, they were more on the money than even they realised.