Facebook Ads and Healthcare

Anne Bordon King, an advocate against pseudoscience who does work around fake cures for autism was recently diagnosed with cancer, and has written an editorial about it in the New York Times.

Since her diagnosis, she says she’s been bombarded with quackery ads on her Facebook wall. Mostly they’re for what she calls “alternative cancer care”. The ads promote cumin seeds and colloidal silver as cancer treatments. She’s offered luxury clinic visits, and has even been served a targeted ad promoting a “nontoxic cancer therapy” administered on a beach in Mexico.

She says she doesn’t fall for the ads because of her work as a consultant for Bad Science Watch, where she’s learned to recognise the warning signs of bad medical marketing: unproven treatments, dangerous treatments, simplistic solutions, and simplistic support.

She says she’s even seen “bleach cures” offered to treat everything from COVID-19 to autism.

She also claims she never saw these ads on her own wall before her diagnosis, and that since, she has never seen legitimate cancer care ads in her feed.

Now, Facebook is kind of made for pseudoscience companies. They leverage the social and support environment of friends networks to push their products, as well as using influencers and testimonials. There are also several pyramid schemes leveraging Facebook Groups to sell their products.

Facebook itself does claim to have addressed the issue, but in relation to Coronavirus. Facebook uses keywords to help advertisers reach people with particular interests, and back in April, they very publicly removed the word “pseudoscience” as a marketing keyword. But they only did this after a tech publication, The Markup, reported that 78 million users were flagged as having an interest in “pseudoscience”. In spite of their actions, Facebook still claims it can take months before a pseudoscience ad is flagged by users.

Three thing really fascinates here: 

  1. That this problem exists at all – we’re not talking about a nerdy hobby here – we’re actually talking about people’s lives. Steve Jobs actually died because of an early yet prolonged indulgence in a pseudoscientific cure for cancer, rather than radiation or chemotherapy.

  2. That it’s so easily reported on, yet reported on so seldom. Anyone buying Facebook ads can see what the markers and keywords are, and instantly receive an estimate – often wildly exaggerated – of the number of people potentially interested in the subject.

  3. And finally, that Facebook readily admits that they’re so large, their offering is so sprawling, that they simply can’t police it efficiently. And you can read that as them admitting that they are too big to guarantee the safety of their own product.

As I’ve been preaching for years, I think it’s time break up Facebook.