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FTC analysis shows COVID fraud thriving on social media platforms

With more than a century of consumer protection experience under our belt, we at the FTC know that hard times for American families can be boom times for scammers. Today’s COVID-19 pandemic is the latest crisis creating fertile ground for fraud – and scammers today have a new and powerful weapon: social media platforms. These platforms generally earn their revenue by targeting users with advertising. The more time we spend on platforms consuming content and revealing valuable personal information, the more that platforms profit by having information to target ads. So, the algorithms tend to favor content that drives engagement, which, in turn, leads to still more information gathered to target ads and to further refine their algorithms.

Recent news stories have reported that for some platforms, this system has resulted in amplification of content that is divisive or otherwise harmful. Here at the FTC, we are seeing how these platforms are becoming hotbeds for deception. Since the pandemic began, the FTC has sent more than 400 letters to companies demanding that they cease making false promises that various pills, potions, and treatments could prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19. Strikingly, about half of the advertisers who received letters made problematic claims on one or more of the four largest social media platforms:

  • 172 of the letters cite claims that appeared on Facebook
  • 69 of the letters cite claims that appeared on Instagram
  • 35 of the letters cite claims that appeared on Twitter
  • 27 of the letters cite claims that appeared on YouTube

The breadth of claims appearing on social media platforms is staggering. For example, on Facebook Live, a marketer pitched beaded bracelets with the promise they would “cleanse[] lung tissue,” “open[] congested bronchia,” and “help you with your immune health and breathing issues, which is what we need with the [coronavirus].” A clinic advertised vitamins, injections, and other “therapies” on Instagram, including a concoction promoted as “a crucial weapon in supporting your immune cells in the fight against COVID-19.” A naturopathic practitioner used multiple social media platforms, including YouTube, to promote light treatments, IV drips, and supplements to protect against the virus. Then there was the doctor who used Facebook to post claims that Ivermectin was effective both to prevent COVID-19 and to treat patients who had already been diagnosed.

The individuals and companies that received the cease-and-desist demands marketed vastly different kinds of products and services, but they had one thing in common: They all extended the reach of their deceptive COVID claims by using major social media platforms.

The FTC’s analysis didn’t evaluate why these problematic claims are appearing so frequently on social media, but here are some observations. First, we know that platforms are built and designed to amplify content, making it easy for scammers to spread false claims and target them at the consumers most likely to be open to those claims. Second, we know that this type of content can be highly profitable for platforms, as false promises of miracle cures are attractive to consumers, making it more likely they’ll engage. And we know that while platforms may take steps to remove misleading content once flagged, this is often after it has already spread to millions of consumers – making it too late for those who have been harmed.

The FTC will continue to monitor social media and demand that the false claims be taken down, but platforms must do more to ensure that this type of content cannot thrive in the first place. Bogus claims of miracle cures may be successful in attracting consumers’ eyeballs, but they can have devastating consequences for Americans who forgo needed treatment or part with hard-earned money in pursuit of false cures. No firm should be putting profits ahead of public health.

Compliments of the Federal Trade Commission.