Facebook let advertisers target users interested in ‘pseudoscience,’ allowing them to capitalise on conspiracy theories that falsely blame 5G cell towers for the coronavirus

  • Facebook allowed advertisers on its platform to specifically target users interested in “pseudoscience,” the nonprofit newsroom The Markup reported Thursday.
  • One targeted ad promoted a so-called anti-radiation beanie, capitalising on bizarre conspiracy theories that recently led vandals to destroy cell towers.
  • Facebook says it has since removed the “pseudoscience” category from its ad portal, but not before it was tagged as an interest for more than 78 million users.
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Facebook has been letting advertisers target users interested in “pseudoscience,” allowing them to capitalise on the conspiracy theories and misinformation regarding coronavirus that have run rampant on the internet.

The Markup reported Thursday that “pseudoscience” was one of many interest categories assigned to users, which advertisers can select from to choose which people on Facebook see their ads. More than 78 million Facebook users were assigned the “pseudoscience” category, which the platform says it has since deleted.

“We’ve removed this targeting option to prevent potential abuse in ads,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to to Business Insider.

One pseudoscience-specific ad that The Markup found this month promoted a beanie that claimed to protect the person wearing it from cell phone radiation. The ad’s appearance coincides with the rise of a conspiracy theory that blames the coronavirus outbreak on the rollout of 5G, a new technology designed to increase mobile connectivity speeds.

The theory has garnered widespread attention, even though there’s no scientific evidence to support it. It’s led to dozens of arson attacks on 5G cell towers and other telecom infrastructure in the UK and Europe. It’s also been spread online by Hollywood celebrities and popular artists to their hoards of fans and followers.

The link between coronavirus and 5G is just one of the bizarre bits of misinformation that has spread on the internet in recent weeks as millions deal with the disease’s impact on their lives, jobs, and daily routines. Other outlandish conspiracy theories have blamed Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates for the pandemic, and alleged the US is inflating its death rates. Some bits of misinformation have had more serious consequences: Thousands have bought into fake coronavirus treatments or promises of testing kits that have cost them a loss of hope and thousands of dollars.

It’s unclear how many advertisers bought ads on Facebook using the “pseudoscience” category, but The Markup said it was able to easily buy ads targeted to that interest on both Instagram and Facebook.

Facebook has struggled to deal with the explosion of misinformation on its platform related to the coronavirus. Dozens of Facebook Groups have popped up for planning anti-quarantine protests in states with lockdown orders and forwarding conspiracy theories regarding the pandemic. Price-gougers and scammers also have taken to the platform to sell face masks, hand sanitizer, and in-demand products that often don’t live up to their promises.