LGBTQ Groups Call on Facebook to Remove Misleading Ads About HIV Prevention Drugs

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Bottles of the antiretroviral drug Truvada. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Nearly 60 LGBTQ and public health groups have signed an open letter accusing Facebook of running misleading ads about medication aimed to prevent the transmission of HIV. The ads, paid for by personal injury attorneys, claim so-called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications like Truvada can have serious side effects.

The Washington Post found one Facebook page called “A Case For Women,” which ran ads last fall that said, “Truvada and other HIV prevention medications have been linked to serious bone and kidney problems."

Foster City-based Gilead Sciences makes two HIV prevention medications, the older Truvada and the newer Descovy. Studies indicate Descovy may cause fewer side effects than Truvada, which has been shown to negatively affect kidney and bone health, because of differences in the drugs' active ingredients. But if an ad doesn't specify which drug it's referring to, or if it only mentions Truvada, it can sound like all PrEP treatments are potentially detrimental.

In an open letter, 58 groups — including the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in South Africa and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation — argue Facebook is ignoring their concerns that these ads put “people’s lives in imminent danger” because they scare people away from medications that prevent HIV transmission.

This issue goes beyond misinformation, as it puts real people’s lives in imminent danger. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that when taken daily, PrEP is highly effective for preventing HIV from sex or injection drug use. The CDC states: “Studies have shown that PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99% when taken daily.” The World Health Organization recommends that “people at substantial risk of HIV infection should be offered PrEP as an additional prevention choice, as part of comprehensive prevention.”

"There are many, many people out there who aren’t on it that should be," said social psychology professor Phillip Hammack, who directs the Sexual and Gender Diversity Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz.

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"We have a moral obligation to ensure that the messaging about public health is not misleading. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) has been an extremely effective way of addressing the spread of HIV among many populations, including gay and bisexual men," Hammack added.

Ironically, the open letter was published on GLAAD's website, which advises Facebook on LGBT issues.

In a statement, Facebook countered, "We value our work with LGBTQ groups and constantly seek their input. 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.”

While he doesn't use Facebook, long-term HIV+ patient Kevin Roe, a lecturer at San Jose State's Department of Public Health and Recreation, said he "fully supports anti PreP (Truvada) ads." After about ten years on Truvada,  Roe developed "moderate kidney disease and a large kidney stone that had to be cut out and was 95% Truvada isolates."

This isn't the first time Facebook's assessment of controversial advertisements put the social media giant in the crosshairs of public opinion.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has experienced a great deal of blowback following his attempts to frame the conversation as one about free speech, including at this event hosted by Georgetown University:

There's no legislation that requires social media platforms ban misleading or controversial content. But Facebook can choose to carve out a particular exemption — and it has, in the case of anti-vaccine content as recently as last March.

Just last week, Facebook announced a lawsuit against advertisers that encouraged people to install malware that "enabled the defendants to compromise people’s Facebook accounts and run deceptive ads promoting items such as counterfeit goods and diet pills."

The vast majority of Facebook's revenues are driven by advertising.

"Any kind of deterrent to this medication is not in the interest of public health," said UCSC's Hammack. "That’s the delicate balance, weighing the financial interests of a few and the larger, collective good for us all."

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