If you use Facebook, you might have seen ads for “Dr. Oz's Diabetes Breakthrough,” promising to cure diabetes and regulate blood sugar in two weeks. Friends and viewers wanted to know if it was legit. It wasn't.
Similar ads have been plastered across the web: Kelly Ripa leaves show to launch antiaging wrinkle cream. Denzel Washington uses these all natural pills to cure his ED.
Bill Gates says these brain boosting pills will double your IQ. These bogus endorsements are a pervasive problem. They not only dupe consumers out of hard-earned cash, they jeopardize health. Tech companies have ignored the problem for far too long.
Celebrities whose personas have been used unlawfully have pursued these shady advertisers for years. TV personality Barbara Corcoran told Bloomberg last year that she's gone after scammers after getting dozens of complaints from people duped by skin-cream ads featuring her face. They're so convincing even two of her own sisters fell for the scam. But it's very hard to track down the source of the ads. Tech platforms could help but have little incentive to do so. After all, the ads mean revenue for them.
A law dating to the early days of the internet helps them skirt responsibility. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act says web platforms cannot be held liable for content they host that is created or developed by others, even if the content is patently deceptive or misleading.
Congress believed that, without such immunity, lawsuits would stymie the internet's growth. Though well intentioned, the law created a dangerous loophole that scammers have exploited.
Friends want to know: Is 'Dr. Oz's Diabetes Breakthrough' legit? The answer is no.
In Europe, tech companies do not get a free pass and can be held liable for content if they know about it and fail to remove it. Last month Facebook caved after being sued by Martin Lewis, the British TV personality who founded MoneySavingExpert.com. Mr. Lewis alleged that Facebook had served thousands of fake ads using his persona to tout money-making schemes involving bitcoin trading, solar energy and bank refunds.
Facebook said it would take down the ads if Mr. Lewis notified it of their presence. But the company allows advertisers to use “dark ads” targeted only at specific individuals. Mr. Lewis would have no way of knowing about them and therefore no ability to report them. As he put it, “It's not my job to police Facebook. It is Facebook's job — it is the one being paid to publish scams.”
Lewis sued in London's High Court, and Facebook settled by agreeing to launch a U.K.-specific tool that lets users report ads they believe to be scams. The reporting tool will be backed by a local team dedicated to handling reports and proactively investigating fake ads.
Facebook should impose these antispam ad measures globally. Others, including Yahoo, Google, Instagram and Snap, should do the same. New tools based on artificial intelligence enable tech companies to monitor and manage their platforms. But the platforms cannot rely on AI alone.
They must staff up their ad review teams and ban ads and services that pose an unreasonable risk of harm. To be sure, this will be costly. But as Mr. Zuckerberg has conceded in recent op-eds and Facebook posts, these systems are needed to keep harmful content at bay.
The U.S. government has a role to play too. One way is by gathering data on the scope of the problem. Currently, there are no studies researching the effect of false celebrity endorsements on consumer health. The Federal Trade Commission, the agency with jurisdiction over deceptive advertising online, should immediately pursue such research. A second way is by helping to identify the scammers. Platforms like Facebook now require those placing political ads to verify their identity. Congress should require those same measures for health-related ads.
Only when the parties responsible for these dangerous ads are held accountable can we expect them to finally come to an end.
Dr. Oz is host of “The Dr. Oz Show” and an attending surgeon at New York Presbyterian/ Columbia University. Ms. Falkenberg is a media lawyer and lecturer at Columbia Law School.