How to Fight Health ‘Cures’ Online

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Anne Borden King had already battled online health misinformation as a parent of a child with autism. Then, as a patient, she was barraged on Facebook by bogus cancer “cure” advertisements after posting about her diagnosis.

Borden, a co-founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures, talked to me about what we and Facebook can do to stamp out the worst kinds of junk health information that preys on people’s fears. It requires us to have some uncomfortable conversations, and for Facebook to fundamentally change how it works.

Stories like Borden’s feel distressingly familiar. Internet grifters looking to make money have been responsible for spreading false vaccine conspiracies online or selling illegal drugs. And because our health is a perennial anxiety, there’s a big market for false hope.

“You can’t get rid of the impetus for pseudoscience, but you can stop a lot of vulnerable people from being exploited,” Borden said.

First, let’s discuss what Facebook can do to stop this. “Only take as many ads as they have time for humans for review,” Borden said. “That’s the only ethical thing they can do.”

This one is a doozy. Advertising online tends to be more automated than it is for TV or newspapers. Facebook and Google do have people and computer systems to weed out some inappropriate ads, but many are purchased without much human intervention.

Borden is essentially saying that automated advertising is too risky, at least for health-related products.

A Facebook spokeswoman said that the company rejected ads with claims that fact checkers rated as false, and that it didn’t “allow ads claiming to cure incurable diseases.”

Like many proposed fixes for our popular internet hangouts, Borden’s suggestion boils down to making social media more like conventional media. That’s what critics of Facebook or other online companies mean when they say that these companies should add context to politicians’ inflammatory statements posted on their sites, or that they shouldn’t be a forum for all ideas.

Borden is less worried about your friends spreading bogus health information online, and wants Facebook to focus on stamping out financially motivated people behind the ads she saw or what she called “stealth marketing.” Borden said companies set up Facebook groups that promote themselves as online support networks but really serve to push unproven health treatments.

As for what we can do about junk health ads, Borden said that every time you see what looks like a sketchy health advertisement on Facebook, you should report it. That flags the ad for review by Facebook and possible removal.

Borden also had advice for how to talk to people we know about health misinformation.

She said she waited a long time to tell people about her cancer diagnosis because she dreaded friends or acquaintances telling her about “alternative” treatments. We might want to brush off unhelpful advice, but these personal conversations can be a starting point to steer people away from pseudoscience. (These tips on how to talk to loved ones about conspiracy theories might help, too.)

Borden said, however, that she saw arguing with strangers online about health misinformation as pointless.

She is heartened that the pandemic has made all of us, government officials and internet companies more aware of the dangers of health misinformation.

“Some of those people that we’ve been complaining about for years are finally being regulated, because of coronavirus,” Borden said.

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