A collection of more than 50 LGBTQ, public health and HIV/AIDS activists have signed a joint letter urging Facebook to remove advertisements from its platform that they say are “factually inaccurate” and scare at-risk users away from pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) treatments.
These ads — which the signatory groups say are being directed at LGBTQ Facebook and Instagram users — come from multiple law firms hoping to recruit gay and bisexual men to be part of a lawsuit related to the PrEP therapy Truvada. These messages are suggesting that Truvada has detrimental effects on bone density and kidney issues, the groups wrote.
However, the signatories highlighted published research that underscores the safety and health benefits of the treatment. Use of the medication is also supported by federal public health organizations such as the CDC, which highlights data suggesting that consistent adherence can reduce the risk of sexually contracted infections by 99%.
The result, according to the letter, is reports from healthcare professionals and care coordinators that at-risk individuals are directly citing these advertisements as a source of their fears about taking the preventive medication.
“This issue goes beyond misinformation, as it puts real people’s lives in imminent danger,” the groups wrote in the letter.
Groups have reached out to Facebook and third-party fact checking agencies as per the social media network’s advertising policy, according to the letter. However, a statement provided to MobiHealthNews from a Facebook spokesperson seemed to imply the opposite.
“We value our work with LGBTQ groups and constantly seek their input,” the spokesperson said. “While these ads do not violate our ad policies nor have they been rated false by third-party fact-checkers, we're always examining ways to improve and help these key groups better understand how we apply our policies.”
The signatories ended their letter with demands that Facebook and Instagram remove the ads, clarify their advertising policy to specify which debunked ads it will be prohibiting, and commit to a review and potential update of its current policies to prevent similar situations in regard to public health misinformation.
WHY IT MATTERS
While the signatories and Facebook seem to disagree on whether or not the ads are in violation of the company’s ad policy, the case is a clear example of how Facebook’s broader advertising criticisms play out within the realm of public health. This case in particular involves a population with disproportionately worse health outcomes and preventive treatment for a chronic disease that is both highly stigmatized and difficult to manage.
“By allowing these advertisements to persist on their platforms, Facebook and Instagram are convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections. You are harming public health,” the letter reads.
“Given the history of how our community was met by deadly indifference during the early years of the AIDS crisis, the refusal to take action is deeply concerning. Since a resolution was not reached, immediate action must be taken by Facebook to ameliorate the harm which has already been caused to those who may be seeking preventative treatment against HIV.”
THE LARGER TREND
Outside of its advertising controversies, the inclusion of damaging public health information on these platforms would be directly at odds with the social media company’s recent public health initiatives.
Most recently, the company launched a new tool that shows users in the U.S. a list of recommended preventive tests or checkups, sets scheduling reminders and connects users to local providers of those services. Other efforts over the past year include new privacy features for Facebook Groups focused on health, vaccine misinformation search filters, disease mapping and blood donation opportunity notifications.