Coronavirus: Facebook stops advertisers from targeting users interested in 'pseudoscience' in bid to stop misinformation

Andrew Griffin
Friday 24 April 2020 16:42 BST
Police in Italy have reportedly charged a pharmacist who was caught at work despite a positive coronavirus test
Police in Italy have reportedly charged a pharmacist who was caught at work despite a positive coronavirus test (REUTERS)

Facebook has stopped advertisers from targeting people interested in "pseudoscience" as it attempts to crack down on coronavirus misinformation.

Until this week, companies were able to use the interest to target particular audiences. But the company has now paused the availability of that and some other categories as it deals with false stories around the pandemic.

Other topics including "conspiracy theory" appear to have disappeared from the list, and a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to Reuters that other categories were being hidden as it evaluates the different audience categories.

The removal came after a report that demonstrated it was possible to pick people interested in "pseudoscience" for targeting with particular posts, presumably allowing them to be targeted with false or misleading information.

Such people would not necessarily know they were thought to be interested in such a topic, and would not have given any explicit indication that they were. Instead, the tag was probably added by automated systems based on the kinds of content they engage with.

The Markup demonstrated that Facebook was allowing such ads after saying it would police COVID-19 misinformation on its platform. More than 78 million Facebook users were interested in "pseudoscience," it said, citing Facebook's ad portal.

Misinformation about the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, from bogus cures to wide-ranging conspiracy theories, has also spread on rival social media platforms such Twitter Inc and YouTube, the video service of Alphabet Inc's Google.

Advocacy group Avaaz reported last week that a sample of 104 coronavirus-related pieces of misinformation content on Facebook analyzed by the group had reached over 117 million estimated views.

Data gathered by ProPublica in 2016 shows that Facebook assigned "pseudoscience" to users at that time, suggesting the category has been available for several years.

The Facebook spokeswoman said in her email that the pseudoscience category should have been removed in a previous review.

"We will continue to review our interest categories," she said.

Facebook has announced several initiatives to combat the spread of false COVID-19 claims, including removing content that could cause "imminent physical harm" and alerting people who have engaged with such misinformation, with a link to the World Health Organization website.

The company has also banned exploitative tactics in ads and banned ads for medical face masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 test kits.

However, a test by Consumer Reports in April showed Facebook approving ads containing coronavirus misinformation, including false claims that the virus was a hoax or that people could stay healthy through small daily doses of bleach.

Facebook reaches 2.5 billion users monthly on its core platform, or 2.9 billion including those on its apps such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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