“Last week, I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.
There’s a reason I’ll never fall for these ads: I’m an advocate against pseudoscience. As a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and the founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures, I’ve learned to recognize the hallmarks of pseudoscience marketing: unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. Things like “bleach cures” that promise to treat everything from Covid-19 to autism.
When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t. Pseudoscience companies leverage Facebook’s social and supportive environment to connect their products with identities and to build communities around their products. They use influencers and patient testimonials. Some companies also recruit members through Facebook “support groups” to sell their products in pyramid schemes.
Through all this social media, patients begin to feel a sense of belonging, which makes it harder for them to question a product. Cancer patients are especially vulnerable to this stealth marketing. It’s hard to accept the loss of control that comes with a cancer diagnosis. As cancer patients, we are told where to go, how to sit and what to take. It can be painful and scary and tiring — and then all our hair falls out. During the pandemic, many of us are also isolated. Our loved ones can’t come to our appointments or even visit us in the hospital. Now, more than ever, who is there to hold our hand?”