This story first appeared in “Go West,” STAT’s weekly newsletter about West Coast life sciences, health care, and biotech. Sign up here to receive it in your inbox.
The Facebook controversies have come to the world of health and medicine.
After last year’s scandals involving Cambridge Analytica and Russian trolls, this time the controversies concern anti-vaccine information and health privacy.
It all started last week when journalists reported that Facebook allows advertisers to target users who have demonstrated interest in anti-vaccine information — and that anti-vaccine ads promoted on the site have been viewed millions of times. Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California also sent a letter to the company urging it to stem the flow of vaccine misinformation.
If that wasn’t enough, Facebook found itself in another health-related mess concerning support groups on its site where users convene to discuss their own medical conditions. A complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission last month and made public Tuesday accuses Facebook of improperly disclosing information about its users who joined these groups with the expectation of privacy. Facebook took heat on this one, too, from federal lawmakers who want the company to brief them on the matter by the end of this month.
When I asked Facebook about this, a spokesperson said that the site isn’t fundamentally about anonymity and makes clear to users what information is visible to other members of a given group.
As for the concerns about anti-vaccine information, a spokesperson told me that the company has “taken steps to reduce the distribution of health-related misinformation on Facebook, but we know we have more to do.”
Facebook also told Bloomberg that it’s considering demoting such content in search results and blocking it from being recommended to users.
Taken together, Facebook’s raging health-related headaches highlight the deep sense of distrust with which many people now regard the site.