Facebook has removed an ad targeting category for users it has identified as interested in “pseudoscience” after a report in the Markup highlighting how it was being used to market to conspiracy theorists.
The company removed the category after the Markup found the Facebook ad portal listed 78 million users in the category, per Reuters. The pseudoscience category is an especially bad look for Facebook, which has long failed in its efforts to prevent its platform from becoming a vehicle for conspiracy theories and has claimed to be cracking down on advertisers seeking to profit off of misinformation during the coronavirus pandemic. A report earlier this month by Consumer Reports found it was trivial to get Facebook to approve fake ads with coronavirus-related misinformation, including one advising viewers to drink “SMALL daily doses” of bleach.
According to the Markup, it’s not clear how many ads were placed under the “pseudoscience” category, but reporter Aaron Sankin found that he was flagged as “interested in ‘pseudoscience’” after he was shown an ad promoting a “radiation-blocking” beanie.
Sankin told Gizmodo via Twitter DM that while it was obvious why the ad for the supposedly radiation-blocking hat showed up in his feed after Facebook proclaimed him a fan of pseudoscience, what’s less clear is how the company made that determination in the first place.
“It may be because, earlier this month, I had gotten interested in understanding how COVID-19 conspiracy theories were being spread on Facebook and joined a handful of groups dedicated very explicitly to spreading conspiracy COVID-19 theories,” Sankin told Gizmodo. “Or it could be a holdover from a few years ago when I spent a couple months researching the PizzaGate conspiracy theory for a story I did at the Center for Investigative Reporting. Or maybe it was because I had gone to some pseudoscientific website at some point in the past where Facebook had a tracker active and that slipped ‘pseudoscience’ into my profile.”
“Honestly, I have no idea because Facebook doesn’t make the information public about why a user is attached to an interest or at what point in time that linkage occurred,” Sankin added.
One meritless but widespread conspiracy theory making the rounds during the coronavirus pandemic is that the disease is not the result of a virus, but radiation from cell towers built as part of 5G rollouts. Police in the UK have tied dozens of arsons at cell phone towers across the country to the conspiracy theory, saying it was the likeliest motivation for the perpetrators. Photos and videos of the attacks circulating online were often accompanied by text claiming the towers are making people around them sick.
Art Menard de Calenge, the CEO of the beanie’s manufacturer, Lambs, told the Markup his company’s official position is that 5G is not the cause of the pandemic and they have never claimed such. But the pseudoscience category is vague enough to loop in anything that might be of potential interest to conspiracy theorists—including radiation-blocking hats. And Facebook determined that the hat was pseudoscientific and added the tag itself, the CEO told the Markup: “This is Facebook thinking that this particular ad set would be interesting for this demographic, not our doing.”
The mainstream scientific opinion, backed by the International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), is cell phone towers and smartphones do not emit levels of 5G radiation deemed hazardous to human health. A large body of research has found little evidence to be concerned, and any theory associating 5G and the coronavirus is patently false.
“There have been people worrying about 5G for years,” Sankin told Gizmodo. “So it makes sense that people who are scared and confused and just trying to make sense of the pandemic-ravaged world they’ve been suddenly forced to inhabit would be grasping around frantically for an explanation.”
“In some cases, that explanation is 5G,” he added. “In other cases, it’s ‘Bill Gates did it’... The other explanation, the mainstream one with scientific backing, is just that a fatal virus evolved so that it does a really good job of spreading around the world. For a lot of people, that last explanation is probably a lot scarier and harder to accept than a secretive cabal operating somewhere in the shadows because a secretive cabal can theoretically be stopped.”
ProPublica discovered a number of similar categories in late 2016, including ones for users Facebook had identified as interested in “New World Order (conspiracy theory),” “Chemtrail conspiracy theory,” and “Vaccine controversies.” While those have since been removed, the pseudoscience category remained the whole time. Additionally, the Markup identified at least 67 user groups whose names “directly indicate they are specifically devoted to propagating coronavirus conspiracy theories.”
University of Washington conspiracy theory expert Kate Starbird told the Markup that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are particularly prone to believing in others. (That phenomenon is sometimes known by the pejorative term “crank magnetism.”) Starbird told the site that Facebook’s marketing to conspiracy theorists takes “advantage of this sort of vulnerability that a person has once they’re going down these rabbit holes, both to pull them further down and to monetize that.”