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Advocacy groups say ads that are spreading misleading information about HIV prevention medication are appearing on Facebook, discouraging people from taking it. Getty Images
  • More than 50 public health organizations and advocacy groups have sent an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling for the removal of ads they say promote misinformation about the HIV prevention medication Truvada.
  • The ads were placed by law firms, targeting LGBTQ social media users to join a class-action lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, makers of the drug.
  • Facebook, however, claims the ads do not violate any of the company’s policies.

Earlier this month, more than 50 LGBTQ and HIV advocacy groups and public health organizations sent an open letter to Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, calling for the removal of Facebook and Instagram ads that were found to promote misinformation about HIV prevention medication Truvada.

The organizations that signed the letter were concerned the ads in question would discourage at-risk communities from embracing pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) treatment, a daily medication regimen that — when adhered to by people who are HIV negative — reduces HIV risk by about 99 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The advertisements are targeting LGBTQ Facebook and Instagram users, and are causing significant harm to public health,” the letter reads. “By allowing these advertisements to persist on their platforms, Facebook and Instagram are convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections. You are harming public health.”

The ads were placed by law firms targeting LGBTQ social media users to join a class-action lawsuit against pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences that makes the drug.

Appearing in users’ Facebook and Instagram feeds, the ads center on health risks like kidney disease and decreasing bone density as side effects of taking Truvada, according to GLAAD, which released the letter in partnership with PrEP4All Collaboration and the other organizations that signed.

Facebook, however, claims the ads do not violate any of the company’s policies.

“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,” Facebook said in a statement sent to Healthline.

A Facebook spokesperson wrote in an email to Healthline that the social media company has policies in place that prohibit misleading content and that the company relies on third-party fact-checking partners to identify “false news” and review the accuracy of content that appears on the platform.

They said this includes any misinformation surrounding health content.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the company has come under fire for content that has appeared in targeted ads.

In recent years, constant controversy has swirled around misinformation in political ads that show up on the platform, for instance.

When it comes to the Gilead lawsuit ads in question, health officials are concerned that misinformation generated around HIV prevention medication could potentially discourage people who are at risk for contracting the virus from adhering to PrEP or even going on it in the first place.

Dr. Hyman Scott, MPH, the clinical research medical director at Bridge HIV, and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), said that he has personally viewed these ads in his own social feeds.

He’s also had patients come to him with concerns over the information in the ads.

He told Healthline that he tries to give people who raise these concerns “proper context” about what the ads are — that they are from law firms working for plaintiffs in these lawsuits and not public service announcements from vetted health sources.

“Side effects from Truvada are well-known facts. There is nothing new being presented here. Side effects like these are relatively rare, and part of care for people on PrEP includes monitoring if there are any changes in bone mineral density, for example,” he said.

Hyman stressed that you should always personally vet your sources of information. If it isn’t from a trusted, medically approved health source, then you should question what you’re seeing on social media.

People who are on PrEP treatments typically go in for clinician visits every three months. At these visits, they will go through standard lab tests that will screen for any adverse reactions to the medications.

Dr. Kristin Englund, an infectious disease expert at Cleveland Clinic, said she’s seen some television ads that also tout this same misinformation. Englund said the regular testing and proof of significant HIV risk reduction usually allays any fears of people who see her for PrEP treatment, but that she still remains concerned about what impact these ads could have on people who are less informed.

“Thankfully, my patients on PrEP are willing to contact me with questions and accept the medical evidence and not the misinformation,” she said. “I remain very concerned about those who will see this misinformation as a reason to not even consider PrEP. If we are going to ever end this epidemic, we must prevent people from acquiring HIV.”

Dr. Alan Taege, an infectious disease expert and Englund’s colleague at Cleveland Clinic, echoed her concerns. He told Healthline that he’s discussed the information provided by the ads with several of his patients who showed concern about what they were reading on Facebook.

“Our best approach as care providers is to have an ‘open door policy,’ meaning we are open to all questions and concerns. We attempt to address them promptly and fully,” he said of ways to combat this kind of misinformation.

All of this uproar around the Truvada and PrEP ads comes at a time when experts and advocates express concern over lack of awareness and understanding of accurate HIV prevention information.

Just last month, Prevention Access Campaign and Merck released a study that showed accurate knowledge of HIV seems to be decreasing among millennials and Gen Z.

It’s something that Adonis Timone is trying to personally push back against.

Timone is a member of ECHO (Engaging Communities around HIV Organizing), a council of youth activists who live with HIV, which was established by Advocates for Youth, one of the organizations that signed the open letter.

Timone, who is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, told Healthline they find it crucial to combat any information on social media that might seem like “propaganda” that could be harmful to vulnerable communities.

Given that Timone has been vocal about their experiences living with HIV, they said friends and acquaintances, both in person and online, will frequently ask them questions about some of the information circulating online.

“People will ask me questions and sometimes I don’t have the full answer to whether something is ‘news’ — sometimes it’s hard to determine whether it’s ‘real news’ or ‘fake news,’” they said.

Timone added these kinds of social media ads can lead to heated discussions online, as users debate whether or not what they are seeing is accurate.

“Because I don’t like to argue on the internet, I just try to post the accurate information. Sometimes I’ll just leave it there to let it sink in even if I get a lot of backlash for sharing that information,” Timone said.

Englund added that places like the CDC are great resources for sharing accurate health information regarding PrEP and HIV treatment and prevention.

Nevertheless, she said these kinds of ads can take their toll, even as activists like Timone and healthcare providers work hard to fight against them.

“The more misinformation presented, the further buried the true life-saving data becomes,” Englund said.

Scott said he’s felt hopeful by seeing some organizations and activists in recent days flood their social feeds with accurate information to counteract the ads.

He said it’s crucial not to view this as just another social media battle. This is more than people fighting back and forth online. It has real-life consequences on people’s health.

“Social media is not insignificant in how it reaches people. There are tangible ways it can be having a negative impact on people’s decisions to continue PrEP. We’ve seen that in some of our clinics — people stopping PrEP,” Scott explained. “It’s important not to dismiss this as something small happening on social media — it’s getting out there widely.”

More than 50 LGBTQ, HIV, and public health advocacy groups signed an open letter to Facebook asking the social media company to remove ads they say are spreading harmful misinformation about HIV prevention medication Truvada.

The ads in question are part of a class-action lawsuit, targeted primarily to LGBTQ users, highlighting potential side effects of going on the drug.

Facebook said the ads pass their own screening standards, but the advocacy organizations and health officials say the ads are having the negative impact of dissuading some people at-risk for HIV from going on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) treatments at all.

Medical experts say that the best thing is to pursue vetted health information and always ask your doctor before both adhering to and stopping any medication.