False health information can be disastrous, but “alternative” doesn’t always mean illegitimate. Can Facebook tell the difference?

By Rina Raphael

Is alternative health news getting the Alex Jones treatment?

Facebook has deleted dozens of pages dedicated to fringe or holistic medicine in an apparent crackdown on pseudoscience. The Global Freedom Movement, an alternative media site, reported that the social platform purged over 80 accounts and that “no reason was provided. No responses to inquiries have been forthcoming.”

This includes rather large accounts focused on health, natural remedies, and organic living, such as Just Natural Medicine (1 million followers), Natural Cures Not Medicine (2.3 million followers), and People’s Awakening (3.6 million followers). Small accounts with under 15,000 followers were also hit.

Former admin Jake Passi tells Fast Company he spent six years building his Collectively Conscious page, which covered alternative health, spirituality, science, and “information that isn’t covered on mainstream media networks.” (A strong portion of the content seems to be republished articles from other sites.) Passi laments that his Facebook community was suddenly erased without warning. It had 915,000 followers.

“People are losing their entire livelihoods here and also in many cases their passion/purpose in this world,” wrote Passi in a popular Reddit post. (The Collectively Conscious website runs native ads, which pulled in between $2,000-$4,000 a month in the first half of 2018, according to Passi.) “Our society is losing media companies and activist organizations that are trying to keep people informed about important issues and life-saving information regarding their health.”

[Screenshot: courtesy of Jake Passi]

After multiple attempts at contacting Facebook to ask about its reasoning, Passi was ultimately told the page was “causing users to like or engage with it in a misleading way.” Passi says he was not given an opportunity to alter posting behavior and appeal the decision, nor was he given a list of offending posts. He was simply told he violated the terms of service.“I think they’re targeting all independent media pages,” says Passi, referencing that CNN and NBC alums now work for Facebook. “[They’re] tasked with ‘revitalizing journalism’ on the platform and weeding out ‘misinformation.’”

Likewise, an administrator for Conscious Life News (1.1 million followers), an alternative health headlines page, confirmed the page was deleted on June 5 without any notice. The administrator sent three help requests with no response. Only when he sent a response through Facebook’s advertisers’ support did he receive a generic response about breaching terms of use.

The purge reportedly began in June, several months after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg publicly vowed to crack down on fake news. While that term is typically associated with politics, misinformation is not limited to partisan topics. Alternative health pages have been known to spread misleading or false information about medicinal remedies that are not backed by traditional science, or debate issues like vaccination.

Unhealthy dialogue

Misinformation can have drastic public health effects, says Susan Krenn, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, which implements health communication programs in over 40 countries. She’s seen a noticeable increase in inaccurate and downright false stories on social media platforms. Often, such postings possess far more sway than content outlets.

“It’s a challenge, because when you see something posted on your social media site that comes from one of your peers, colleagues, or family members, you are more likely to believe it,” says Krenn.

She gives the example of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where people refused to go to the hospital for treatment because of misinformation that admittance “was a death sentence.” Others believed news that a government plot was behind advice to stop washing the dead before burial, when in reality, it was to prevent further infection.

Unverified health advice can be dangerous (and costly) if people believe they’re getting a cure with something that’s not actually going to help them.

However, “alternative” medicine and practices does not necessarily mean illegitimate. Krenn stresses that lesser-known, holistic approaches are now much more accepted in Western medicine, and there’s growing evidence for their benefit. Still, people should fact check claims via credible sources such as government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, or academic studies.

As for Facebook, sifting through what’s real and what’s not in the budding alternative health scene can prove difficult. As Krenn points out: “How do they take down the right stuff that truly is deliberately misleading or obviously true misinformation?”

Who checks the fact checkers?

Facebook recently announced the expansion of its fact-checking program through a combination of technology and human review. The work is completed in-house as well from independent third-party fact-checkers certified through the International Fact-Checking Network, reports TechCrunch. Facebook claims such efforts reduce the distribution of fake news by roughly 80%. (Earlier this month, Facebook announced it removed four pages run by Infowars.)

According to one former page administrator, all it takes to get taken down is for two or more articles to be “debunked” by fact-checking sites such as Snopes and the Associated Press.

A Facebook rep confirmed that a portion of these alternative health pages were deleted due to its policy banning pages that are deemed spam or “are misleading, fraudulent, or deceptive.” The company did not provide further information about how, specifically, these pages violated the platform’s policies.

It’s hard to judge some of these pages’ content given that they’re no longer live, but it’s worth noting that Goop (48,000 followers) is still live and well, despite its noted history of amassing public debunkers.

Many of the page administrators feel frustrated that they were not alerted in advance that their page was at risk–or even given the chance to advocate for their content.

“The grotesque reality is that Facebook doesn’t give a damn that years of hard work by page creators is being callously deleted in an instant without recourse,” writes Brendan D. Murphy, cofounder of Global Freedom Movement. “They don’t give a damn that businesses are being ripped apart by their acts of censorship violence.”

Alternative to alternative?

Murphy, along with fellow disgruntled admins, started a new platform “where the cognitive and social grass is a little greener.” Trooth, says Murphy, is the “woke” social network for alternative thinkers. Those interested can request an invitation to join the site in which members discuss a host of health topics, ranging from pharmaceuticals to energy healing.

Passi says he’s now involved in a group chat with others who have lost their pages as they attempt to “document everything which is happening to the independent media community right now on all the mainstream social networks,” with an emphasis on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

They are also trying to figure out ways to protect the alternative health pages that still remain on Facebook. For example, there’s an internally shared list of buzzy alternative health words to avoid in their titles and descriptions lest they catch Facebook’s attention. (The group didn’t share any of these words with Fast Company.)

The group is also considering a class action lawsuit, although legally, Facebook’s terms of service give it broad discretion to remove content it deems in violation of its policies.

Ultimately, it sounds as if they too are contemplating a move to new platforms, such as Minds, Steemit, and iFeed, “a fully customizable, open-source, decentralized, free speech social network,” which reportedly got accepted into Y Combinator’s Startup School.

“Facebook has gone nuts with adding rules that restrict freedom of speech and freedom of the press in massive ways,” says Passi, adding that such censorship, in addition to Facebook’s recent scandals, will greatly affect the platform’s popularity and use. “Eventually the public will say enough is enough and begin to migrate elsewhere. There are already many alternatives.”