By Daniela Hernandez and Robert McMillan
Facebook Inc. and YouTube are being flooded with scientifically
dubious and potentially harmful information about alternative
cancer treatments, which sometimes gets viewed millions of times, a
Wall Street Journal examination found.
Now, the companies say they are taking steps to curb such
accounts. Facebook last month changed its News Feed algorithms to
reduce promotion of posts promising miracle cures or flogging
health services, a move that will reduce the number of times they
pop up in user feeds, the company says. Some of the affected posts
involve a supplement salesman who promotes baking-soda injections
as part of cancer treatment.
"Misleading health content is particularly bad for our
community," Facebook said in a blog post set to publish Tuesday
announcing the moves.
Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube has been cutting off advertising for
bogus cancer-treatment channels, a spokesman said. It is working
with medical doctors to identify content promoting unproven claims
and medical conspiracy theories and has tweaked its algorithms to
reduce the number of times these dubious videos are presented to
Facebook and YouTube detailed their recent actions on
cancer-related content after the Journal presented them with its
findings. Widespread misinformation sometimes appeared alongside
ads, videos or pages for proven treatments, the Journal found.
Medical snake oil is an age-old problem, but the internet has
dramatically extended the reach of bad actors peddling fixes for
complex conditions that don't always have cures. The amount of
misinformation is so extensive -- and publishing on tech platforms
so easy -- that it can be hard to weed out. Patients come to
appointments armed with information they have found online, some of
it inaccurate, doctors say. Purveyors of misinformation inflate
results from early laboratory studies for remedies that haven't
been tested in humans, for instance.
"The granule of truth behind some of these can be very
persuasive and can be manipulated by people who are trying to
sell," said Fumiko Chino, a Duke Cancer Institute oncologist.
Patients aren't relying on a single source; there are a multitude
of sites and social-media accounts promoting misinformation, she
and other doctors said.
The two tech giants' efforts are part of a broader move by
Silicon Valley to police health-related content on platforms, and
it is becoming as thorny an issue for the industry as its efforts
to tackle hate speech, which has sparked complaints about
censorship and political bias.
YouTube, which has guidelines that don't allow videos that can
result in immediate harm, considers medical misinformation
especially concerning, a spokesman said. Videos conveying
inaccurate medical information are among the 8.3 million videos the
company says it has removed during the first three months of this
year for violating its policies. The YouTube spokesman said that
while the company's systems aren't perfect, YouTube's results for
searches for cancer information have improved.
Earlier this year, Facebook said it would crack down on false
criticism of vaccines spread by skeptics, an effort that the
company has acknowledged has a long way to go. YouTube also changed
its algorithms to play down results for antivaccination content.
And Pinterest has stopped surfacing vaccination-related search
results because most cautioned against vaccines.
Public-health authorities blame such unwarranted skepticism for
lower vaccination rates that have contributed to recent measles
A Journal investigation found misinformation about cancer
treatment widely available on social-media sites. The Journal spoke
to dozens of oncologists, patients, lawyers, privacy experts and
company representatives, and quantified the reach of several-social
media accounts that promoted scientifically unvalidated cancer
As of Monday, YouTube videos viewed millions of times were among
the postings advocating the use of a cell-killing, or necrotizing,
ointment called black salve to treat skin cancer. Use of the
ointment can inadvertently burn or kill healthy skin, and doesn't
remove cancerous growths beneath the skin, as is claimed in some
videos, said David Gorski, a professor of surgery at Wayne State
University School of Medicine in Detroit who edits the blog
Science-Based Medicine. The wounds could also lead to
According to Dr. Gorski, misinformation about cancer on the
internet is as much of a public-health issue as antivaccine
misinformation. "It's hard to argue which one is the worst," he
Often the videos and social-media postings are connected with
online businesses seeking to generate sales of books, supplements
and unproven products.
A Facebook page with more than 60,000 likes promotes baking-soda
injections and juicing regimens to treat cancer sold by a
supplement salesman named Robert O. Young. Mr. Young was convicted
in a San Diego County court in 2016 for practicing medicine without
Gina Darvas, the San Diego deputy district attorney who
prosecuted him, said that Mr. Young used the internet -- in
particular YouTube and Facebook -- to earn as much as $5 million a
year before his conviction.
Mr. Young has multiple Facebook pages currently. He has a
personal page and he and his affiliate run others dedicated to
selling products and services, internationally and domestically.
The pages contain posts with embedded videos and links to
Weeks after getting out of jail in November 2017, Mr. Young was
back on Facebook. His main page gets frequent updates with posts
selling his discredited cancer and dietary theories, plus services
and products. Videos on an account featuring Mr. Young have earned
more than 900,000 views, according to an analysis by social-media
intelligence firm Storyful, which is owned by News Corp., The Wall
Street Journal's parent company.
Mr. Young didn't respond to Facebook and email messages seeking
comment, or a message left via one of his product distributors
seeking comment for this article.
A study published in the journal JAMA Oncology last year found
patients who chose alternative treatments over scientifically
validated cancer therapies like surgery, chemotherapy or radiation
had a higher risk of death.
In July 2012, a cancer patient named Naima Houder Mohamed flew
from the U.K. to Mr. Young's Southern California ranch after seeing
his videos on YouTube. She had received a regimen of baking-soda
injections and low-acid foods, according to her brother, a family
friend and San Diego prosecutors. Ms. Houder Mohamed died of
metastatic breast carcinoma in November 2012, according to
prosecutors and her family.
The 12 weeks of treatments at Mr. Young's San Diego ranch cost
about $70,000, according to her brother, Rachid Houder Mohamed. He
said he was forced to sell his transportation business to get the
family out of debt.
Mr. Houder Mohamed said that he was disappointed that Facebook
and YouTube continue to host Mr. Young's content. "He robbed us of
12 weeks of the last segment of my sister's life," he said in an
interview. "Facebook should be fined for allowing this to go as
long as it has."
Facebook didn't immediately respond to email messages seeking
comment on Mr. Houder Mohamed's criticism.
Purveyors of medical misinformation sometimes buy ads to promote
their wares. The more popular ones on YouTube can serve ads with
their videos and generate income. Ads for well-known brands,
including pharmaceutical companies and auto makers, preceded videos
for a channel named Chris Beat Cancer before the Journal asked
about the channel and YouTube took away the advertising.
The channel, which has 125,000 subscribers, plays down the
benefits of preventive screenings like mammograms, and promotes
non-validated tests, including so-called thermography. Thermography
is a noninvasive imaging tool that shows heat and blood flow near
the surface of the skin. It Is often billed online as a safer, more
effective alternative to mammograms, though the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration warned in February that thermography alone wasn't an
effective way to screen for breast cancer.
The account, managed by cancer survivor Chris Wark, also
promotes alternative cancer treatments, like diet. In his videos,
Mr. Wark says to viewers he isn't "anti-chemo," but that he
supports patients having access to information that can help them
make their own decisions.
Mr. Wark didn't respond to requests for comment about
social-media posting policies.
Write to Daniela Hernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org and
Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 02, 2019 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)
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