Cancer fraudsters target ‘vulnerable’ on social media – ‘How many have died?’

Loose Women’s Brenda Edwards recalls her cancer diagnosis

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So-called wellness influencers are posting content online challenging the effectiveness of chemotherapy and promoting their own products as alternative treatments. One post on Facebook from November claims chemotherapy makes tumours more lethal and invites readers to tune into an online docuseries instead.

Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, said: “Sadly, there are many examples of dangerous misinformation being spread by alternative therapists online. These approaches often seem factual, but are masked behind ‘pseudoscience,’ which misrepresents scientific research to support false and misleading claims.

“Many lives have been saved or extended through the use of conventional medicine like chemotherapy and radiotherapy and there is no credible evidence that diet alone or any other alternative therapy can treat cancer effectively.

“We recommend that cancer patients be very cautious about any information shared with them that promotes unconventional treatments and always check with their doctor when considering therapies not prescribed by a qualified doctor.”

Dr Stephanie Alice Baker, senior lecturer in sociology at City, University of London, said: “There is a huge responsibility on the part of social media companies. Platforms should be taking this type of content down.

“There has been a real lack of care regarding vulnerable communities. Facebook claims to remove misinformation that risks imminent physical harm. Influencers encouraging people not to take chemo and instead watch their docuseries or purchase their unproven supplements – that causes real-world harm.”

Dr Baker, speaking exclusively to, added: “It is not as though the online world is separate from the offline world. The fact that these disinformation producers can target people online means that they ought to be protected.

“Where you see the risk of real-world harm, this content does need to be responded to. That’s where regulation needs to come in place. You get the impression tech platforms are just doing enough. It does not take much creativity for users to evade content moderation.

High profile cases of influencers profiting from their online presence include Belle Gibson who claimed to have “cured” her inoperable brain cancer through healthy eating after being told she had months to live.


With a 200,000-strong following, considered large at the time, Ms Gibson’s cookbook and app The Whole Pantry was backed by Penguin and Apple.

But in 2015, it was reported Ms Gibson lied about having cancer. She was fined £240,000 in September 2017 by the Australian government for misleading readers about donating money to charity after being found guilty of breaching consumer law five times.

Dr Baker explained how fraudsters often appearing relatable and trustworthy carry out their cons for financial gain, a degree of fame or notoriety.

She said: “Whether they believe this disinformation or not is not the point. The point is they are deceiving the public and profiting financially in most cases.

“If a doctor did this, they would be struck off the register. What I don’t understand is that six years after Belle Gibson, we still have these people online preying on people who are vulnerable.”

Dr Baker makes a number of recommendations to tackle disinformation and misinformation online.

These include tech companies monitoring influencers’ covert methods; independent oversight to make sure community guidelines are enforced; archiving how content moderation has been enforced; using a separate verification symbol for medical professionals and stricter policies for spreading anti-vaccine posts as well as cancer fraud.

There should also be a greater focus on hashtags, Dr Baker explained, with #plandemic still searchable on Twitter in spite of the conspiracy theory video having been removed.

Overall, Dr Baker believes it is not a freedom of speech issue but one of public protection, in spite of wellness fraudsters’ crying censorship when they are clamped down on.

She asked: “How many people have died because of fraudulent advice?”

A spokeswoman for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said: “We do not allow harmful misinformation on our platforms, and during the pandemic we have removed more than 24 million pieces of this type of content.

“We also have a network of 80 independent fact-checking organisations around the world working to identify false claims.

“Pages, Groups, and accounts that continue to share false claims are not recommended to people, their content will feature lower in News Feed and notifications are limited so fewer people see their posts.”

Since 2018 Facebook has had a policy of removing harmful misinformation which could contribute to physical harm.

Besides removing content globally, 3,000 accounts, pages and groups have been taken down for spreading COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation with warnings displayed on 195 million Covid-related pieces of content on Facebook rated as false, partly false, altered or missing context.

Twitter has been approached for comment.

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