Over 50 LGBTQ and health nonprofit organizations have written a letter to Facebook, demanding the social media giant cease spreading misinformation about HIV.
The letter — whose 52 cosignatories include the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, amfAR, and the Gay Men's Health Crisis — criticizes Facebook and Instagram for ads attempting to recruit gay and bisexual men who use Truvada, a durg used for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), into a lawsuit.
The targeted ads, which appear to be from personal injury attorneys, claim Truvada, a drug shown to be up to 99 percent effective in HIV prevention if administered daily, has harmful side effects, including issues related to bone density and kidney function.
These ads are "causing significant harm to public health," the letter warns, because they are inciting public mistrust in PrEP, a key tool in fighting the AIDS epidemic.
"The law firms’ advertisements are scaring away at-risk HIV-negative people from the leading drug that blocks HIV infections," notes the letter, which cites studies contradicting the ads' claims as well as evidence of the damage the misinformation is causing.
"Leading public health officials, medical professionals, and dedicated PrEP navigators and outreach coordinators have shared that these advertisements on Facebook and Instagram are being directly cited by at-risk community members expressing heightened fears about taking PrEP," the letter notes. "This issue goes beyond misinformation, as it puts real people’s lives in imminent danger."
The ads have been viewed millions of times in recent months — and Facebook has refused to take them down, despite repeated requests from GLAAD and other leading LGBTQ groups to do so.
The letter claims that, in refusing to take down these ads, Facebook is not following its own advertising policy on misinformation, which states, “Facebook prohibits ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers or, in certain circumstances, claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise.” The letter's cosignatories are the ones with "particular expertise" in question, the letter asserts.
However, Facebook claims it is not violating its policy in a statement sent to The Washington Post. “We value our work with LGBTQ groups and constantly seek their input,” said spokesperson Devon Kearns. “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."
GLAAD, in a release sent to press, said it had contacted the third-party fact-checkers in question and not received a reply. Sarah Kate Ellis, the LGBTQ media organization's CEO and president, said Facebook's response to the misleading ads point to a larger systemic issue within the social media organization.
“Facebook’s refusal to take action on ads that target at-risk community members with false medical information points to a much larger problem for Facebook users and an urgent need for LGBTQ safety to be prioritized across their products,” Ellis said. She added that GLAAD, known as a monitor of LGBTQ representation in TV and film, announced it will be devoting more resources to reviewing social media outlets for the safety of LGBTQ users.
Other leaders of LGBTQ groups denounced the ads and demanded their removal.
"PrEP can save lives and has been shown to be effective at blocking HIV transmission,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “Facebook and Instagram should not allow misinformation to flourish on their platforms, especially when it comes to people’s health and well-being. These dangerous ads should be removed and banned from running in the future.”
“We have a wealth of documented reports from frontline prevention experts raising the alarm on these ads, and have been met with infuriating responses from Facebook about their vague and shifting advertising policies," said Peter Staley, a cofounder of the PrEP4All Collaboration. "Since they also blocked pro-PrEP ads from a leading AIDS prevention group, I’m beginning to wonder if the company could care less about the spread of HIV among gay men.”
In addition to requesting the removal of the ads, the letter is demanding that Facebook be more transparent with the LGBTQ community about its advertising policy and commit to a review of it to prevent further misinformation.
Other cosignatories include the Trevor Project, AIDS United, the American Academy of HIV Medicine, HIV Medical Association, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, the National Coalition of STD Directors, and the National Minority AIDS Council.
Facebook routinely makes headlines for its advertising policy. It received bipartisan criticism for foreign-backed ads that influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The tech giant has also been slammed for continuing to allow political ads that contain misinformation.
Read the full letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at GLAAD.org.