- Instagram is recommending new users in the US follow an account linked to a “healer” who claimed he could use herbs to cure AIDS, cancer, and other diseases.
- “Dr. Sebi,” whose clients reportedly included Michael Jackson and John Travolta, said that modern medicine was wrong and that all illnesses were ultimately caused caused by excess “mucus.”
- The decision by the social network’s algorithm is likely exposing tens of thousands of people to this dangerous medical misinformation.
- One expert estimates that the recommendation is equivalent to millions of dollars’ worth of free advertising for the account selling Dr. Sebi-inspired supplements.
- The incident shows how Instagram’s algorithms can expose people to harmful pseudoscience, even if they have never previously had any interest in it.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In 2004, Michael Jackson was reportedly spending almost $US4,000 a day to visit “Dr. Sebi,” a pseudoscientific “healer” who once claimed his herbal remedies could cure everything from AIDS to herpes.
Today, Sebi’s bogus potions have found another high-profile promoter: Instagram.
The Facebook-owned photo-sharing app has been automatically recommending an account promoting Sebi’s medical misinformation to new users in certain countries, including the United States, Business Insider has found – likely introducing his erroneous theories on human biology to thousands of new people and giving them a worrying veneer of legitimacy.
Sebi’s wild claims include that disease is fundamentally caused by excess “mucus,” rather than bacteria, viruses, and other ailments, and that you can make your body more alkaline to improve your health, ideas totally at odds with modern medicine. He died in 2016, and was not a licensed medical doctor, but Instagram’s algorithm is now pushing a major account selling supplements and products inspired by his theories for up to $US1,500 a purchase to new users of the site, regardless of their interests.
Why? When someone signs up for the social network they’re shown a list of high-profile users they might want to follow as part of a the onboarding process, under the heading “Recommended for you.” These are not paid promotions or ads; they are accounts chosen by the company’s opaque algorithms seemingly on the basis of popularity, and the majority are mainstream celebrities, athletes, and brands, including Ellen DeGeneres, Nike, The Rock, and the FBI.
But also included among the top ten suggestions is “Official Dr. Sebi’s Cell Food” (@drsebiscellfood) – an account with more than one million followers that sells Sebi’s concoctions, dismisses the efficacy of conventional medicine, and which features user comments on its website suggesting its tinctures can be used to successfully treat serious illnesses including breast cancer, diabetes, and auto-immune disease.
Instagram’s promotion of Sebi’s pseudoscience is the latest example of how social networks’ opaque algorithms, in their attempts to highlight popular content and inspire people to use the services as much as possible, can inadvertently spread dangerous medical misinformation.
The finding has prompted serious concern from scientists and other experts over what likely amounts to millions of dollars’ worth of free advertising for the account, on some of the most valuable real estate on the internet.
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We are always working to identify and reduce the spread of misinformation on Instagram, and actively take steps to reduce its distribution where we can. We’re looking into whether or not this account is recommendable based on our misinformation policies.”
Several hours after this story was published, a spokesperson said in an email that they had removed the account from recommendations: “We don’t want people to be recommended accounts like this, and so we’ve removed this account from being recommended to people. We appreciate this being brought to our attention.”
The website selling Sebi’s products did not respond to a request for comment.
A celebrity pseudoscientist with wild theories about ‘mucus’
Alfredo “Dr. Sebi” Bowman was a Honduras-born alternative medicine practitioner who developed a long list of celebrity clients – including Steven Seagal, John Travolta, and Eddie Murphy, according to an obituary from The Telegraph.
Over the course of his life he was embroiled in a number of lawsuits. In the 1990s, the New York Attorney General’s office brought a suit against an organisation linked to Sebi, resulting in a consent agreement in which it could no longer make therapeutic claims about its products. His relationship with Michael Jackson ended with the non-doctor suing the pop star for $US380,000. Sebi was arrested in Honduras in 2016 and charged with money laundering, and subsequently died in prison.
Scientific experts are dismissive of Sebi’s claims about mucus build-up, and the idea that touted on the Dr. Sebi’s Cell Food website that“only consistent use of natural botanical remedies will effectively cleanse and detoxify a diseased body, reversing it to its intended alkaline state.”
“Modern medicine has given us highly effective immunizations, life-saving surgeries, antiviral medications, chemotherapy, and many other successful interventions,” said Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator at McGill University’s Office for Science & Society.
“And it was modern medicine, not ‘African Bio-mineral Balance compounds,’ that revolutionised the treatment of childhood cancers. And to reject that infectious agents like viruses can cause disease in 2019 is quite frankly an indefensible, anti-science stance.”
Sebi has shot back into the headlines this month following the death of American rapper Nipsey Hussle, who had been making a documentary about the herbalist – prompting unproven conspiracy theories that “there were forces trying to silence Sebi’s health message,” according to a report from the Associated Press.
Instagram appears to be directly endorsing the account to tens of thousands of new users
Tests suggest that all new users signing up in the United States seem to be being recommended the Sebi account, often as one of the top 10 recommendations – boosting it to likely tens of thousands of people in a way that makes it appear directly endorsed by Instagram.
“This is an explicit endorsement, it could be nothing less,” said Anil Dash, a well-known American technology executive, of how the Sebi account’s inclusion in the list will be viewed. “In order to get that kind of reach, other companies, other people, will spend millions of dollars – millions! This is a multi-million-dollar gift they are giving to obscure, shady, duplicitous publishers.”
Dash has experienced the power of social network’s recommendations first-hand: In the early days of Twitter,he was one of the site’s recommended users to follow, resulting in at times hundreds of new followers an hour, and a significant boost to his online presence: “It is some large part of me being visible.”
It’s not clear when Instagram started featuring the account in its recommendations, or exactly how many new followers the recommendation has driven to the account. It is currently growing rapidly; at the end of 2018, it had 600,000 followers, 40% less than now. According to social media analysis firm Social Blade, it is currently gaining an average of 2,000 new followers per day; it’s not clear what proportion of those are coming via the recommendation feature.
An Instagram spokesperson declined to share data about how much exposure the account has gained due to its inclusion as a recommendation.
Business Insider ran multiple tests across the United States, signing up for new accounts in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Every time, the new accounts were shown the “Official Dr. Sebi’s Cell Food” (@drsebiscellfood) as one of their top suggestions. (We could not conclusively prove that it appears for every single new user in the US, but it is clearly widespread, with the lists of recommendations appearing essentially identical across the country.) It also appeared as one of the suggestions for a new user in Melbourne, Australia, though it did not show up in London, England or Montreal, Canada, with those new users seeing different recommendations tailored to their country.
These recommendations appear if a user opts not to sync their contacts with the social network, and are not interested-based – they come before a user has had a chance to enter any personal information, upload photos, or actively seek out other accounts to follow.
If a new user chooses to follow @drsebiscellfood and starts using the app, Instagram will then start pushing other pseudoscientific accounts into their main feed in a box labelled “Suggestions For You,” promoting other misinformation based on Sebi’s theories – including ALKALINE VEGAN (@heralkalineways) which is openly dismissive of modern medicine’s efficacy, “Alkaline Vegan” (@justalkalinevegan), “Dr. Sebi” (@drsebibook), and others.
In this way, Instagram’s algorithms can push users down a rabbit-hole of medical misinformation, even if they had never heard of “Dr. Sebi” or shown any interest in pseudoscience before signing up for the social network.
The incident also raises serious questions about what accounts Instagram has been recommending to other users in other languages over the past decade. Business Insider was only able to conduct tests in a few major English-speaking countries over the space of a week – it’s not clear what misinformation may have proliferated due to the recommendation feature elsewhere in the world.
Tech companies are now coming under increasing scrutiny over how their algorithms can inadvertently spread pseudoscience and other misinformation into the mainstream. Vaccine denialism is on the rise, prompting outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, in part because communities of misguided sceptics have been able to use social networks as a platform to spread their message. And Business Insider has previously reported on how YouTube has become a home for people who advocate drinking bleach, wrongly claiming it has healing powers.
“Instagram’s role in actively promoting pseudoscience through its platform algorithms by steering new users to follow sites deceptively selling snake oil ups the ante,” said Professor S. Bryn Austin at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Policymakers have started demanding more accountability from these platforms for their role in cultivating and curating deceptive content in other arenas. Promoting pseudoscience is no different.”
An Instagram spokesperson declined to say whether the company would notify affected users that it encouraged them to follow misinformation, saying it was still investigating and deciding next steps.
‘These statements are the very definition of pseudoscience’
The website for Dr. Sebi’s Cell Food features a boilerplate disclaimer on its website, warning that its “statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
But this doesn’t stop it offering medical-sounding advice – or featuring glowing reviews from customers making radical claims about the products’ alleged efficacy.
The $US1,500 female-focused “All Inclusive Package” has a comment from someone saying they used it to treat breast cancer. Multiple commenters on the $US750 “Advanced Package” say they used it to tackle herpes (herpes is currently incurable). $US50 banju is touted by the comments as a treatment for mental conditions ranging from bipolar disorder to dementia and ADHD. Bio Ferro tonic has comments from people with diabetes and cancer.
“It’s a very convenient way of not making the claims yourself and just allowing testimonials to speak for you, and to make these quite, quite ridiculous claims that are unproven as far as I’m concerned,” said Jarry. There is no evidence that these medical conditions were actually cured by the products, he said, or that the reviews are even real.
Asked to comment on the claims made by the female All Inclusive Package, he said: “You can’t cleanse the body at the cellular level. You also can’t rebuild your blood by ingesting algae and herbs. Unfortunately, these statements are the very definition of pseudoscience: they sound scientific by invoking concepts such as ‘cells’ and ‘calcifications,’ but they are a mumbo jumbo that any undergraduate student in cell biology would recognise as such.”
He pointed out that the Bromide Plus Powder is framed to avoid making specific medical claims, meaning that it does not break any laws. “They can’t write that Bromide Plus will regenerate your stomach or cure your colorectal cancer. But they can make this vague assertion that it’s ‘helpful’ to your gastrointestinal tract, which is at once meaningless and superficially convincing.”
And of the Uterine Wash & Oil, he added: “If a person needs their blood to be ‘purified,’ they’re going to need a dialysis machine, not a vaginal douche made of clovers.”
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