More than 50 organizations dedicated to LGBTQ rights, HIV/ AIDS prevention and treatment, and public health issues penned a letter December 9 to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding he remove advertisements on Facebook and Instagram that advocates say overblow the potential side effects of HIV prevention medication.
The groups said in their letter that law firms are trying to encourage gay and bisexual men who use Truvada for PrEP to sign onto a lawsuit claiming that the drug comes with side effects that can lead to bone density and kidney problems.
One ad posted by “Lawsuit Watch” stated, “Anyone who suffered Kidney or Bone Damage after Truvada/ PrEP may be entitled to Financial Compensation. Gilead concealed the risks of Kidney and Bone Damage with Truvada, Viread & other PrEP Medications.”
Another ad, this one by “Truvada Side Effects,” stated, “Truvada & other TDF drugs prescribed to prevent or treat HIV may harm kidneys and bones” and added, “Legal options available.”
GLAAD provided screenshots of those ads, but the letter only mentioned “various law firms” and GLAAD did not elaborate on exactly who is driving the effort.
But the groups used the letter to push back against those narratives, saying, “The law firms’ advertisements are scaring away at-risk HIV negative people from the leading drug that blocks HIV infections. This is despite numerous studies underscoring the safety of TDF in HIV-negative PrEP users.”
Use of PrEp by sexually active gay and bisexual men, among other groups, is considered a vital component in public health efforts to end the HIV epidemic.
In a written statement, Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David said Facebook and Instagram “should not allow misinformation to flourish on their platforms, especially when it comes to people’s health and well-being.”
“These dangerous ads should be removed and banned from running in the future,” he said.
The letter follows a separate development in October when Apicha Community Health Center, which provides services primarily to LGBTQ people of color and those living with HIV, tried unsuccessfully to post a PrEP awareness advertisement. The ad was rejected, with Instagram saying advertisers cannot post ads about social issues, elections, or politics, according to Vice.
Peter Staley, a longtime HIV/ AIDS activist who is a cofounder of PrEP4All Collaboration, which a coalition of advocates dedicated to pushing for PrEP access, referred to Apicha’s situation as he ripped Facebook for failing to act on the ads.
“Since they also blocked pro-PrEP ads from a leading AIDS prevention group, I’m beginning to wonder if the company could care less about the spread of HIV among gay men,” he said in a written statement.
The letter’s international slate of co-signers include several New York-based groups including ACT UP New York, Amida Care, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Housing Works, the New York City AIDS Memorial, and the LGBT Community Center. The PrEP4All Collaboration also signed the letter.
The groups stated in their letter that they provided Facebook’s advertising team “ample time and opportunity” to address the issue, and even pointed out to Facebook’s policy stating that, under “certain circumstances,” the platform bans ads with “claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise.”
“We are the organizations with ‘particular expertise,’” the letter said, referring to Facebook’s policy. “Given the history of how our community was met by deadly indifference during the early years of the AIDS crisis, the refusal to take action is deeply concerning.”
In turn, the letter outlined three main demands: That Facebook and Instagram remove the ads in question, that both platforms provide transparency regarding their policy’s aforementioned reference to “certain circumstances,” and that Facebook review and update its advertising policies to prevent misleading health statements.
“These concerns of the LGBTQ community, AIDS activists, and public health professionals need to be prioritized by Facebook, especially since lives and public health are at stake,” the note concluded.
In a written statement on December 10, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “I am deeply troubled by reports of deceptive advertisements on Facebook questioning the safety and effectiveness of the HIV-prevention drug Truvada. The ads are unwarranted and unacceptable, and Facebook should remove them immediately. Health officials and federal regulators have been clear that Truvada — or PrEP — is safe and effective. Despite this fact, fear-mongering attorneys who lack medical credentials are pushing these deceptive ads and scaring individuals into thinking this life-saving drug is causing them harm. This ad campaign is putting New Yorkers in danger and jeopardizing the great strides our state has made in helping end the AIDS epidemic.”
Cuomo added, “Anticipating the concern and confusion this type of false advertising would have on users of Truvada, in October I directed the Department of Health to issue a letter reassuring healthcare providers that this medication is safe and effective.
So far, Facebook is treating the controversy as an issue of advocacy groups not understanding its advertising policies, not as a matter public health concern. According to the Washington Post, a Facebook spokesperson said, “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.”