Public health crisis: Facebook ads misinform about HIV prevention drug

Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.

Photo Credit: Paul Butler / Flickr
  • Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
  • Over the years, Facebook's hands-off ad policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its political ads.
  • Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.

LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.

The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.

LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy

According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.

LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.

In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."

What Facebook’s policy risks 

Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.

But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.

"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.

Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism

To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.

It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.

But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.

Examining Facebook and the case for privacy

What happens when a major social media platform's business model abuses user trust?

  • Facebook has been in plenty of hot water lately with user data scandal.
  • Columbia Business School professor Rita Gunther McGrath says the early warning signs were there when considering the social media platform's business model and attitude toward user privacy.
  • When users don't understand the extent of content ownership, and the platform they're using is willing to abuse that trust, a lot can go wrong.
Keep reading

Internet activism: How are political movements shaped online?

In today's political world, building a campaign team that is dedicated to a digital presence is key to winning.

  • When it comes to developing an effective online campaign, it's important to build a team of members who understand their audience and who have a clear understanding of their team's division of labor.
  • Successful campaigns understand the pros and cons of various social media platforms — their respective architectures are important when it comes to strategically propagating a message. Having someone who spends concentrated time to really understand how the platforms work, and how to capitalize on their algorithms, is vital to compete in today's political world.
  • Young people aren't automatically savvy when it comes to boosting a campaign's engagement. What matters most is having the resources to train team members how to better utilize social media.
Keep reading

Political engagement online takes work, too. Here’s why.

When it comes to effectively propagating a message in the modern day, few do it quite like internet activists.

  • Groups with more resources, more organizational infrastructure, and more conservatives leanings tend to use the internet for political activism more so than their working class, left-leaning counterparts.
  • Building a political movement with a strong online component takes a tremendous amount of work and expertise, such as understanding how to leverage algorithms on social media to better propagate a message.
  • When it comes to sending out a message online to as wide an audience as possible, be mindful to develop ways to not just reach those who have the time and resources to be constantly online.
Keep reading

National borders don't stop in the physical world – they're in cyberspace too

Virtual borders have also been subtly dividing the world

Omar Marques/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

To the globalists' dismay, recent years have seen the strengthening of national borders. State sovereignty rages on with each vehicle returned and each visa revoked.

Keep reading