Researchers at the prestigious American university of technology MIT have investigated the spread of misinformation about controversial cancer treatments on Facebook and Instagram. The research shows that parent company Meta is doing too little against its spread, but that the technology giant is making a lot of money from it.
Again, Meta is the subject of controversy. This time because of the display of advertisements promoting non-scientifically proven cancer treatments.
At the start of the corona pandemic, Meta has publicly spoken out against advertisements spreading questionable health information. Advertisements must not contain deceptive, inaccurate or misleading claims, such as about the effectiveness or characteristics of a product or service, including misleading health, employment or weight loss claims that create unrealistic expectations in users' minds.
However, researchers from MIT have shown that several advertisements have been placed in the US by private clinics, promoting special cancer treatments and promising to kill the cancer. However, these treatments are not approved by the regulatory authorities. The research used Meta's ad library, where you can find all ads published on Facebook.
The research shows that several private clinics use Facebook and Instagram ads to reach potential customers, using personal internet data collected by Meta. According to MIT, anyone who has searched the Internet for cancer treatments in the US has seen an ad for these types of clinics at least one or more times.
Cutting edge and groundbreaking treatments
Researchers found that a center in Mexico posted several advertisements referring to “cutting edge” and groundbreaking treatments. However, those are offered exclusively in their facility and at a high cost.
The center's treatment focuses on "Gerson Therapy", which is a diet consisting of drinking several glasses of juice daily and consuming supplements. The claim of the diet's creators is that the treatment can cure a patient, something that is not scientifically substantiated. Surgical oncologist, David Gorski, calls the treatment unproven and nonsense.
In addition, the alternative treatments are often expensive and are not covered by insurers.
“Users are free to report ads they believe violate Facebook and Meta policies,” Meta said in a statement to MIT. But that is not always easy for a lot of people. For a vulnerable group of patients, it is understandable that an advanced treatment, suddenly popping up in a news feed, can feel like hope.
According to the report, several of these ads published by these clinics have been investigated and removed by Facebook. The social network has admitted to removing them for violating its policy on “misleading claims, claiming to cure terminally ill”. However, the measure is inconsistent and does not apply to everyone.
On both Facebook and Instagram, the ad review process is largely automated. This leads to many advertisements passing a first filter, despite the strict guidelines that Meta uses. And it also happens that advertisements from companies are removed by Facebook, only to be successfully published a few months later in a second attempt.