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Meta faces questions over 'misleading, false' ads targeting cancer patients

by Thomas Dworetzky, Contributing Reporter | July 06, 2022
Business Affairs Rad Oncology
Meta, aka Facebook and Instagram, is in the hot seat over ads containing questionable health advice.

The latest exposé, courtesy MIT Technology Review, concerns ads that surfaced on the platform from CHIPSA, the Centro Hospitalario Internacional del Pacifico, S.A. The hospital calls itself “a community hospital offering integrative treatments for cancer,” according to the review.

One ad promotes something called Apatone, a proprietary vitamin C–based mix, that it alleges is “KILLING cancer.”

Patients cannot get Apetone in the U.S., and it is not FDA approved.

The Apetone ad is one of nearly 20 from CHIPSA that have popped up on Facebook containing what Tech Review called “misleading or false health claims, targeted at cancer patients.”

As to the hospital’s main therapy, known as the Gerson Protocol, which is oriented toward dietary issues? “All nonsense,” Wayne State University oncologist Dr. David Gorski told the publication.

The hospital did not respond to queries from Tech Review. When the MIT publication alerted Meta to the CHIPSA ads and also ones from another organization, Meta spokesperson Mark Ranneberger told the review that some, but not all, had been taken down “for violating our misleading claims policy, which prohibits claims of cures for incurable diseases.”

After the article was published, the remaining ads were also removed.

Facebook has boosted its efforts to fight such healthcare misinformation — “a step in the right direction,” postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington Rachel Moran told the review.

But things move so fast that even the most aggressive efforts let false advertising go viral.

Meta's misleading-claims rules also leave a lot of wiggle room, said Gorski, noting that “a lot of quackery could have a legitimate health use.” After all, Vitamin C is legitimate for health... just not as a cure for cancer, he observed.

Compounding the problem is that misinformation moves from platform to platform once it hits the web, Moran noted to the publication.

“Especially when you are experiencing a medical crisis, you are looking at an incredible amount of information,” Moran told Tech Review. “It seems good to you that you are doing your research, you're going from one site to the next. But they all belong to the same ecosystem.”

Also of note in dealing with Meta's misinformation challenges; in June Bloomberg reported that Meta is reducing, and ultimately cutting, support for CrowdTangle, a search tool it owns, and which has been used by researchers in all fields to track misinformation, specifically including politics and the claims that the last presidential election was “stolen.”

Meta spokesperson Erin McPike told the news service that the company would support researchers using the tool and intended to create “even more valuable” software for their use. She added that the company, alerted by researchers, would maintain CrowdTangle at least until after the midterms.

That said, Meta bought CrowdTangle in 2016, intending for it to allow its advertisers to track social media strategies. But it has had to face PR troubles as it became useful not just for business, but for journalists and misinformation watchdogs seeking to track and expose false stories of all sorts that popped up on Meta's platforms.

These misinformation revelations, uncovered with the help of the tool, created PR issues for Meta, according to the news agency, despite the company's best efforts to downplay its role in the fake-story tsunami rapidly engulfing the web.

According to Bloomberg, insiders now think that “Facebook will roll out a tool that mimics some of the features of CrowdTangle without giving users full access to its original capabilities.”

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