04/06/2018

How Facebook Makes Scam Artists’ Jobs Easier

7:24 minutes

mark zuckerberg at conference
Mark Zuckerberg speaking at the 2015 F8 conference. Credit: Facebook

Recently, Facebook has been under scrutiny for helping spread political misinformation online. What’s receiving less attention these days are the health and science scams being conducted on the platform.

Nidhi Subbaraman, science reporter for Buzzfeed News, joins guest host John Dankosky to explain how one especially harmful practice (drinking a diarrhea-inducing fermented salted cabbage mixture) has managed to amass a large following, and no one seems to know how to put a stop to it.

[Orchid mantises—particularly juveniles—are quite aptly named.]

Plus, researchers have discovered 12 new black holes scattered around the central supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy. But, they predict there could be millions more still hidden from view.

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Segment Guests

Nidhi Subbaraman
Nidhi Subbaraman is a science reporter at Buzzfeed.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky, sitting in for Ira Flatow.

Recently, Facebook has been under scrutiny for helping to spread political misinformation online. What’s receiving less attention are the health and science scams being conducted on the platform. One especially harmful practice has managed to amass a pretty large following, and no one really seems to know how to put a stop to it. Here to tell us that story, as well as other short subjects in science, is Nidhi Subbaraman, science reporter for BuzzFeed News. Welcome back to Science Friday, Nidhi.

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN: Hi, John. Nice to be here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Glad you’re here. Why don’t you give us the details of this latest case of misinformation on Facebook. You’ve been following it pretty closely.

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN: Yes. This, among all other scams on Facebook, seems spectacularly bizarre. And so I spent a couple of weeks looking into it. Essentially, a woman from Ohio called Jillian Epperly, with no medical license or scientific background, was proposing a theory that a fermented concoction of salted cabbage juice made at home could have these amazing incredible cure-all properties. And so she was saying that it could reverse any disease, like cancer, or it could arrest aging, or it could even turn gay people straight. And rather remarkably, she had gotten about 50,000 people or more on Facebook in a group, in a private group, to follow her and follow along to her theory.

In parallel, though, as many people as were buying into this, she had also inspired this movement of people who thought that misinformation like this had no place on Facebook and she ought to be shut down. So a group of people reached out and said, she needs to go. Nobody seems to be helping. And so I looked into this Facebook war that had broken out.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, let’s get into this treatment, some of the concoctions she talks about. You talked to doctors about this. Is it harmful to people, from what they say?

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN: They say that it’s completely bogus. Cabbage juice cannot have the effects that this woman says it has. And in cases where it allows people or encourages people who should be looking to medicine to treat some of their real illnesses, it takes them down a path that has no benefit. And so it could be harming them that way.

Also, fermentation at home needs to be done pretty carefully. And so people who don’t do that might make themselves ill by improperly kind of making this concoction just in their kitchen. And also, a high salt content in a juice like this could be harmful for people with high blood pressure and infants or pets, as she was suggesting people give this juice to.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So it sounds like it could be bad for people and it’s probably bogus. What does Facebook say about all this, about these kind of activities happening on their platform?

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN: So I presented this to Facebook and they reviewed it. And they said that it was OK to exist on their platform. Facebook does sometimes take down content or block users. For example in cases of extreme violent content, or nudity, or when there’s somebody encouraging people to do harm to themselves, they take that content down.

But they pointed out that this didn’t fall into any of those categories. And they said that they wanted to be a platform where healthy dialogue could take place. And since there was this discussion and debate happening, they said it was fine.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. Facebook is going to be in Washington very soon, talking about what their platform exactly is supposed to exist like, and how regulators might deal with Facebook. What are government officials saying about all this?

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN: So the group of angry people on Facebook, just regular people that I mentioned, they actually took it upon themselves to reach out to a number of federal agencies who are sort of involved in regulating health and science. And so they reached out to the Ohio attorney general’s office, the state medical board of Ohio, because Jillian Epperly lives in Ohio. They reached out to the FDA, to the FTC. And I also made all of those stops in turn.

And it seems like this is a tough question for any agency to really handle. The state– the medical board said they only supervised doctors. And since she wasn’t a doctor, this wasn’t something that they could handle. The FDA received complaints, but so far has not done anything. The FTC has also received complaints, but hasn’t done anything either.

It seems to be sort of a tough nut for people to crack, because this isn’t a product that she’s selling. It’s just an idea that seemed to have caught fire.

JOHN DANKOSKY: A very strange and potentially dangerous idea. Well, let’s move on. It’s a fascinating story. I want to hear a bit about a story you brought to us. Researchers have discovered a dozen new black holes in the center of the galaxy. How were they able to find so many so fast?

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN: Right. So the center of the galaxy has this large, supermassive black hole. People already knew that it was there. But they sort of theorized that this was a great place to find others. But you know black holes. They don’t do much of anything, so it’s hard to spot them.

And what researchers have done is they looked for pairs of black holes, black holes that had gravitated towards the center but had snatched a star on their way. And when these to pair up and do this tango, they emit X-rays, which are now visible in observations that the NASA telescopes are making.

And so they finally decided they would look towards the center of the Milky Way. And lo, they found the special class of sort of duo black holes, one star, one black hole. And they found a dozen of them.

JOHN DANKOSKY: A dozen and maybe lots and lots more out there?

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN: They say it’s just the tip of the iceberg, because these duos are so rare, if they found just a handful of these, there could be up to 10,000 more.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We have just about a minute left. But I want to hear about scientists discovering some new dinosaur footprints from the mid-Jurassic area in a beautiful part of the world that I visited about two years ago or so. Tell us about these dinosaur footprints and where they were found.

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN: This was saurapod footprints off the coast of Scotland, the Isle of Sky. And it’s windy and rainy out there. But back in the middle Jurassic, this piece of land was closer to the equator, and home to the ancestors of the titanosaurs, so the long-legged sauropods that apparently mingled with the ancestors of the T rex.

So they found 50 tracks of about trashcan-lid-sized prints, along with smaller theropod prints, the theropods being the relatives of the T rex. So both of these kind of hung out in marshy waters. And it was really a surprise to see footprints, because each fossil, they say, is kind of a miracle. But a footprint? That’s really, really cool.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s really cool. I guess I could have been walking on dinosaur footprints while I was there. It certainly looks like a place the dinosaurs would live.

That’s all the time we have. I want to thank our guest, Nidhi Subbaraman, who’s a science reporter for BuzzFeed News. Nidhi, thanks so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

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