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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There’s a paradox behind many of the digital services we love: The qualities that make them successful and useful can also make them risky or exploitative.

Take those precisely targeted Facebook ads that pitched bogus cancer cures as soon as Borden posted about her diagnosis. They’re a result of Facebook gathering huge amounts of information about us to pinpoint product ads at those of us who might be most receptive to the message.

If you’re a small business and those finely targeted ads help you sell your homemade patterns to sewing hobbyists, the Facebook system is incredibly useful. The dark side is this same setup makes Facebook like candy to modern-day snake-oil salesmen.

And it’s not just Facebook. Uber and Lyft let almost anyone be a self-employed taxi driver. But now some drivers and government officials are asking whether treating drivers as independent contractors rather than employees with the right to receive benefits is fair.

Amazon’s sprawling network of merchants lets it sell almost any product imaginable. That’s incredibly useful, and also extremely dangerous, for shoppers like us.

I don’t know how to resolve this. These companies and other digital powerhouses brought us something different because they ditched the usual conventions about how advertising should work, what a job looks like and the limits of store shelves. It’s wonderful. And also awful.


  • Should you delete TikTok? A Washington Post columnist looked under the hood of the app and found it siphoned no more data from your phone than Facebook did. (This is not a compliment, and he has suggestions to limit the snooping.)

    This doesn’t solve, however, what some American politicians fear — that because TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, it is beholden to a government that might force it to spy on Americans or censor people to China’s liking. TikTok says it wouldn’t do that.

  • Also in fears of Chinese spying: After pressure from the U.S. government, Britain said it would ban equipment from the Chinese technology giant Huawei from the country’s high-speed wireless network, my colleagues Adam Satariano and Stephen Castle reported. As with TikTok, one big government fear is that Huawei’s home country might order the company to use its equipment for espionage or to disrupt telecommunications. Huawei has disputed this.

  • Google isn’t a front door to the internet. It’s the whole house: Bloomberg News traces Google’s slow march from directing people elsewhere online to keeping us inside its digital walls for weather, random facts, news, shopping and more. This has implications for government investigations into whether Google unfairly uses its power to help itself.

Uncertain times call for … a long Twitter thread of cat photos. (Plus one cuttlefish, I think, and a dog with bat wings.)We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.

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