Data privacy scandals, help in rigging elections, spreading fake news on COVID and vaccines: Facebook has been through a lot and users are not happy with the social media giant’s performance. However, Mark Zuckerberg’s company does not only have a political and social impact, but it’s also getting quite relevant in healthcare.
We looked around what Facebook currently does in healthcare and evaluated whether those are viable ways to follow in the future.
Facebook: from trust issues to healthcare
The social media machine built on “sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users’ personal information and data trails“, found itself in the middle of social and political debates as it failed to take into consideration its influence on its users – be it individuals, companies, publishers or nations.
From the Cambridge Analytica scandal through the Trump campaigns to COVID-19 misinformation, the giant failed to act upon serious issues in time. And as news arouse about the tech giant’s Preventive Health tool and is said to be building its own wearable, we can’t NOT connect the dots and realise how Facebook is slowly stepping into healthcare.
So we looked around what its relation is to healthcare. Does it handle private health data and if so, how exactly? Does it allow the dissemination of insane, health-related fake news? How does it fair in community building and how does it offer its own tools for health issues? Let’s see.
Sharing intimate health data? Not cool.
Apps outside the Facebook ecosystem “can and do willingly share data with the company to make it easier to reach existing and new users” (and their friends) on the platform through ads. A Wall Street Journal report found that that’s especially troubling in the case of health and fitness apps. These could be sharing anything from menstruation cycles through food allergies to blood pressure data. Quite popular health apps take part in the practice.
Take for example period and fertility tracker, Flo Health. Facebook can match information it collects from the app to real profiles. These users can be targeted by ads presenting products for expecting mothers and new parents. Another company involved is a meditation tool, Breethe, which recognized its mistake regarding the issue. What the most troubling thing is that none of the apps, at least 11 out of the 70 that The Wall Street Journal examined, bothered to notify users about the data-sharing tool through privacy policies or terms of service. Neither did Facebook.
In every single instance, but especially in the case of sensitive health information, users have the right to know who collects their data and for what purposes and companies should support them accordingly.
Spreading anti-vaxx messages? Not cool.
Cracking down on fake health news? Cool.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook is a hotbed for misleading or outright false information – and that’s also true in the case of healthcare. So much so, that the company has no idea how much misinformation is spreading on the site.
Researchers at Health Feedback, a network of scientists dedicated to reviewing media coverage of health and medical news published their findings of the accuracy of the most popular health articles. They found that out of the ten most-shared health-related articles, seven contained misleading or false information – with the most popular piece, “Federal Study Finds Marijuana 100 Times Less Toxic than Alcohol, Safer than Tobacco.” The experts added that Facebook proved to be the largest source of inaccurate articles, accounting for 96 percent of the shares of the examined stories.
This was the case before the pandemic – and you can guess it only go wilder. In August 2021, the company said it removed over 20 million posts with COVID misinformation from Facebook and Instagram. The issue is so big that even President Joe Biden raised his voice about it.
Facebook (along with other social channels like TikTok and Reddit) has a continuous problem halting health misinformation. The ongoing issue on Ivermectin is a clear sign that these platforms have no idea how to stop what they started. Ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug for veterinary use gained its momentum among anti-vaccination groups and individuals, is believed to cure COVID-19. Despite the fact that practically every single scientist, organisation and health professional have denied this, groups on social media keep on pushing for the opposite, and platforms seem powerless against the rapid spread of medical misinformation.
Maintaining patient communities? Cool.
There are still corners of Facebook working around his original purpose: connecting people. The platform serves many patients as a virtual support group, people who may feel lonely and isolated while battling a severe disease. Patients use Facebook to learn from patient leaders who have already been through what they are going through. Many look to their patient peers for an unfiltered account of what a particular medical procedure is really like, or to get an idea of what kind of side effects to expect from a new medication.
Melissa Adams VanHouten, an advocate for patients with gastroparesis, manages a private Facebook group with more than 21,000 members. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, she told Medical Marketing & Media that some people suggested relocating the group to another site, but that idea was quickly dismissed. The main reason was that she found no other community site that equals the flexibility and options Facebook offers. That might also be the explanation of why the majority of patient communities didn’t experience the expected “digital exodus” amidst the sequel of Facebook scandals.
A mother of four with congenital glaucoma created the support community Mommies with Guides after finally meeting another blind mom for the first time. Their encounter led to a group of now about 2,400 parents supporting each other:
A tool promoting blood donation? Almost cool.
In 2017, the social media giant launched the Blood Donations tool, whereby people in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan could find opportunities to donate nearby. People who visit Blood Donations on Facebook can also sign up to be a blood donor to get notified directly when there is a need for blood nearby.
However, the tool’s person-to-person format is ringing alarm bells among experts and professionals who say that it’s too easy to abuse the service, leaving vulnerable people at risk of paying extraordinarily high prices and receiving tainted blood, among other issues. Public health officials in India were calling for Facebook to make changes to the blood donation tool, warning that the tech project — although well-meaning — risks fueling a dangerous black market for blood and harming the country’s fragile blood collection system. The Facebook Blood Donations feature is now available in 37 countries.
Suicide prevention through A.I. and reviewers? Cool.
For years, the company has allowed users to report
suicidal content, which was sent to in-house reviewers. They evaluate the
report and decide whether a person should be offered support from a suicide
prevention hotline or, in extreme cases, have Facebook’s law enforcement
response team intervene.
The social network ramped up these efforts after several people live-streamed their suicides on Facebook Live in early 2017. About a year ago, Facebook even added artificial intelligence-based technology that automatically flags posts with expressions of suicidal thoughts for the company’s human reviewers to analyze. Thus, the company now leverages on both algorithms and user reports to flag possible suicide threats.
Facebook says the enhanced program is indicating 20 times more cases of suicidal thoughts for content reviewers, and twice as many people are receiving Facebook’s suicide prevention support materials. However, mental health experts said the social media giant’s calls to the police could also cause harm – for example unintentionally precipitating suicide, compelling nonsuicidal people to undergo psychiatric evaluations, or prompting arrests or shootings.
Where is Facebook in healthcare?
VR – Facebook spent billions of dollars to buy Oculus Rift in 2014. The VR device (with the catch that it can only be used with a Facebook account) is heading towards mixed reality with its Oculus Quest 2. Not directly a health tool, but it’s used best in fitness games. Another step into this world will be Facebook’s smart glass, a cooperation with Ray-Ban.
A.I. in medical imaging – The company’s A.I. branch, the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) group has a number of projects from computer vision to COVID forecasting. FAIR has been working with the NYU School of Medicine’s radiology department to significantly reduce magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan time with artificial intelligence.
Pop-up vaccine clinics – Now why would an online tech company have vaccination clinics if it has no further plans in healthcare? It might be towards a greater goal in building health-related trust, but Facebook is doing good: the company’s pop-up vaccination clinics help bring COVID-19 vaccines to underserved communities in the US.
Smartwatch – Facebook has already been rumoured to build an own wearable, and it seems the company is reaching the end of that development. This summer news broke that Facebook is building an Android smartwatch with health and wellness features. The main draw would be Facebook’s services for messaging and other social features, but with the company’s reputation with data handling, its success is at least questionable.
Social media – Indeed, social media’s core role has returned! During the pandemic, Facebook and the other channels provided a much-needed link between people, from support groups to health tips. Facebook’s WhatsApp played important role in governmental communication as well, where 20% of the people have signed up for their local governments’ real-time WhatsApp messages. The social network also takes part in the ‘Alliance for Advancing Health Online’, in order to improve messaging about health and addressing vaccine hesitancy, and ensuring vaccine equity among underserved communities.
Facebook hasn’t seemed to understand so far how important data privacy is to its users – or rather doesn’t want to give up its privileges to mine and sell the enormous data aggregated on its servers. That’s the reason why people are rather suspicious when hearing about news that for example Facebook was discussing sharing user data with medical institutions and think that they might rather end up in a dystopian Black Mirror episode than being hopeful for getting customized care with knowledge about patients’ lifestyles and their medical needs.
Facebook stands at that cross-road, exactly. Either to become a social media/publishing company that could help connect people in meaningful ways and bring humanity towards a better future, or not considering social, political and healthcare impacts and utterly failing to live up to the expectations.