Facebook makes money by allowing people to buy ads on its platform depicting ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug commonly used in veterinary medicine, as a treatment for or preventative measure against COVID-19, even though there's no scientific evidence it's effective when used this way. Facebook also has a lengthy, detailed COVID-19 policy making clear that it forbids all sorts of specific medical misinformation. "We don’t allow false claims about how to cure or prevent COVID-19," it proudly proclaims.
How to reconcile these two facts is a mystery, especially because Facebook has declined to address the question when repeatedly pressed by Motherboard. In at least one case, though, the gap between what Facebook says it allows on its platform and what it actually does has led to an aspiring entrepreneur starting a business based in part on advertising ivermectin—which the FDA has begged people not to use for COVID and the use of which has led to an official alert in Mississippi—directly to Facebook users.
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On Monday, the same day Motherboard reported that Facebook was allowing ads making false and unproven claims to run with the keyword "ivermectin," the entrepreneur set up a Facebook page for a business selling the drug directly to the public. (Ivermectin requires a prescription for human use; the fly-by-night seller is clearly promising his customers a way around that.) The Facebook page set up by the seller points to a crude website, which suggests that ivermectin is useful in the treatment and prevention of COVID-19 and provides links to purchase it via secure payment or on eBay.
"What I do is follow trends on Google," the seller said in an online chat with Motherboard on Tuesday. "I look at what's trending, and if I can research and locate the product and it's legal to sell, I do so.”
The seller—whose business Motherboard is not naming so as not to direct people to a place where they can buy grey market prescription drugs for potentially dangerous purposes—was, he added, inspired by seeing a similar listing elsewhere. "There was a guy on eBay selling from Ukraine," he said, "and I stumbled across his listing. He had over 1500 sales and was selling around 20-30 bottles a day. That's what got me interested in selling this product."
The seller, who says he isn't based in the U.S. and claims to have physical control over his inventory, said he spent about $40 on Facebook ads to promote his new business, and has so far seen no returns on his investment. He was, though, curious about why he was even able to do this.
"I think the loophole is the fact that it is used and sold over the counter for pets and not controlled," he said. "I can tell you that eBay will not allow any title to have the word ‘ivermectin’ in it. Maybe Facebook is just greedy for revenue."
(An eBay spokesperson said, “Per our Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drug Policy, ivermectin is prohibited on our marketplace.” Searches for “ivermectin” on eBay did not return results showing the drug being sold on the platform, but searches for related terms did.)
The loophole the seller mentions gets at the central problem with ivermectin, specifically. The drug has legitimate uses in humans when prescribed by a doctor, but is principally a veterinary drug that is uncontroversially sold to anyone who has the money for it. On Facebook as well as Amazon and other platforms, the top search results for ivermectin are for veterinary uses. Social media platforms are put into a difficult spot: How do they allow people to legally buy and advertise the sale of veterinary ivermectin without inadvertently aiding those who want to sell it to humans for a far more dangerous use?
These are knotty questions that Facebook is, thus far, opting to simply not address, leaving people like the seller hopeful that they’ll be able to turn a quick buck. He wasn’t interested in engaging too deeply with the question of how he’d feel if someone bought ivermectin from him to prevent COVID and then caught the disease.
"What if I owned a gas station," he asked, rhetorically, "and sold a gallon of gas to a customer and he went and burned down a house with it?
"Ivermectin has many uses,” he continued. “The world cannot stop selling it because some people think it will prevent COVID! What about all the other people using it for the correct uses? I see this as pure supply and demand, that's all."