The ad reads like an offer of salvation: Cancer kills many people. But there is hope in Apatone, a proprietary vitamin C–based mixture, that is “KILLING cancer.” The substance, an unproven treatment that is not approved by the FDA, is not available in the United States. If you want Apatone, the ad suggests, you need to travel to a clinic in Mexico.

If you’re on Facebook or Instagram and Meta has determined you may be interested in cancer treatments, it’s possible you’ve seen this ad, or one of the 20 or so others recently running from the CHIPSA hospital in Mexico near the US border, all of which are publicly listed in Meta’s Ad Library. They are part of a pattern on Facebook of ads that make misleading or false health claims, targeted at cancer patients.

One CHIPSA ad that is still live, according to Meta’s Ad Library. (MIT Technology Review)

Evidence from Facebook and Instagram users, medical researchers, and its own Ad Library suggests that Meta is rife with ads containing sensational health claims, which the company directly profits from. The misleading ads may remain unchallenged for months and even years. Some of the ads reviewed by MIT Technology Review promoted treatments that have been proved to cause acute physical harm in some cases. Other ads pointed users toward highly expensive treatments with dubious outcomes. 

CHIPSA, which stands for Centro Hospitalario Internacional del Pacifico, S.A, was founded in 1979 and refers to itself as a community hospital offering integrative treatments for cancer. On Facebook, the facility describes itself as being at the “cutting edge” of cancer research. But the hospital’s foundational diet-based therapy, called the Gerson Protocol, is “all nonsense,” says David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at Wayne State University in Michigan and the managing editor of the website Science-Based Medicine. Developed by a German doctor in the 1920s to treat migraines, the regimen consists of a special diet and frequent “detox” procedures. It has been discredited for decades in the medical community.

CHIPSA did not respond to repeated requests via phone and email for comment.

MIT Technology Review alerted Meta to five CHIPSA ads, along with three ads from another international clinic called Verita Life. In response, Meta spokesperson Mark Ranneberger said that it had removed “several of the ads for violating our misleading claims policy, which prohibits claims of cures for incurable diseases.”  

When asked for the specifics of the ads removed, Ranneberger said that two were rejected: the one claiming that Apatone was “killing” cancer and another that mentioned “growing distrust” of the US health-care system while advertising exclusive cancer treatments. Another ad using identical text to that second one but a different image remains active. 

“Us cancer patients and survivors, we are just bombarded with all these kinds of alternative things all the time,” says Nikhil Autar, a medical student in Australia who has acute myeloid leukemia. Autar started seeing ads for cancer treatment centers on Facebook in 2019—just as Facebook and other platforms began rolling out new policies designed to limit the reach of health misinformation.

A screenshot of an ad captured by Nikhil Autar on August 12, 2020.

Facebook has drastically stepped up its efforts to stop the spread of sensational and false health claims over the past few years. After a series of local measles outbreaks in the US in 2019, it announced it would start treating misleading health claims like spam, reducing their reach on news feeds and limiting the visibility of private Facebook groups promoting dubious treatments. When the covid-19 pandemic began, the company rolled out more comprehensive efforts to remove or limit such claims as conspiracies about the virus, masks, and vaccines spread on its platform. 

These attempts to combat pitches for miracle cures and dubious medical advice have been a step in the right direction, says Rachel Moran, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed

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By: Abby Ohlheiser
Title: Facebook is bombarding cancer patients with ads for unproven treatments
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Published Date: Mon, 27 Jun 2022 11:00:00 +0000