Facebook giving massive distribution to dangerous misinformation about diabetes

Facebook is giving a page featuring incendiary right-wing memes and dangerous misinformation about diabetes massive distribution — reach that exceeds some of the nation's largest news outlets. 

The Rowdy Republican page, which has over 780,000 followers, is run by an affiliate marketer with a history of legal problems and deceptive practices. He is seeking to drive people to a site about "The Big Diabetes Lie," which tries to convince people to purchase a $55 paperback book. According to the website, if you have diabetes and don't purchase this book, you will soon die: 

If you are OK with slowly losing your vision and then going blind as diabetes destroys the blood vessels in your eyes causing them to wither and die, if you're perfectly fine with dying 9 years earlier, possibly not waking up tomorrow, dropping dead at any moment or having your legs amputated. If you are OK with not seeing your kids or grandkids grow up, then please, close this page and go back to what you were doing.

One of the leading medical experts in treating diabetes, Dr. David Goldstein, an endocrinologist affiliated with the University of Missouri, reviewed the website and told Popular Information that the information was "ridiculous" and contained "dangerous misinformation." 

The Daily Caller, a member of Facebook's official fact-checking program, reviewed a post by Rowdy Republican that included a link to "The Big Diabetes Lie" and rated it "true."

The runaway success of the Rowdy Republican page is a sign that Facebook's efforts to reduce the spread of misinformation is failing. As a result, its users are being put in danger. 

According to a source that has contacted Facebook representatives, the company has ignored reports about misinformation from the Rowdy Republican page since at least November 2018. Facebook also did not respond to a request for comment by Popular Information. 

The Rowdy Republican way

The Rowdy Republican Facebook page is not, on the surface, about diabetes. Instead, it traffics in provocative conservative memes to attract engagement, which on Facebook means likes, comments, and shares. Posts that get more engagement on Facebook are rewarded with increased distribution.

There are posts arguing that a flag featuring Barack Obama's face should be "illegal" and posts claiming Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez "should be removed from any form of government." There are hundreds of similar posts along these lines.

But the real purpose of these posts is to drive traffic to a seemingly unrelated website, "The Big Diabetes Lie." Nearly everything posted to the Rowdy Republicans page includes this message: "There is PANIC in The Diabetes Industry! Big Pharma executives can't believe their eyes. SEE WHY CLICK HERE."

The incredible reach of the Rowdy Republican Facebook page

The tactics of the Rowdy Republican Facebook page have been wildly successful. According to Crowdtangle, an analytics site owned by Facebook, the Rowdy Republican page has more engagement over the last 30 days than USA Today, the second-largest newspaper in the United States. 

The Rowdy Republican page has been able to outperform USA Today, even though USA Today has over 8 million followers, more than ten times the Rowdy Republican's following of 780,000. Over the last 30 days, the Rowdy Republican page also has outperformed the Los Angeles Times (2.76 million followers), another of the nation's largest newspapers, and prominent digital outlets like BuzzFeed News (3.02 million) and Vox (2.43 million).

The big diabetes scam

Facebook users who are exposed to posts from the Rowdy Republican page are encouraged relentlessly to visit "The Big Diabetes Lie" website. The fundamental message is that if you have diabetes and listen to your doctor's recommendations, you will die a painful death. Instead, you should follow the advice contained in a $55 paperback book. 

It doesn't matter if you follow your doctors recommendations and dosages exactly as prescribed. This isn't a question of IF, but WHEN. Your health will get worse. The drugs you take will fail. The insulin injections you take will also fail.

If you have diabetes, you simply cannot continue this way - sooner rather than later you WILL die; either from diabetes, its complications, or side-effects from the drugs you take. And it won't be quietly in your sleep either. Getting rushed to the hospital while the paramedics break all of your ribs giving you CPR will be hell on earth.

Popular Information talked with Dr. David Goldstein, an endocrinologist who is one of the leading experts in diabetes treatments. Goldstein, who has been treating diabetes patients since the 1960s, "pioneered the clinical use" of the A1C blood test that has revolutionized the treatment of diabetes. 

Goldstein has been involved in a number of long-running studies that have successfully identified the risk factors for diabetes complications. Someone who has either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, receives appropriate care from a well-trained doctor, and follows the doctor's recommendations, can expect to live a normal life. By turning people with diabetes away from these scientifically proven methods, the website puts people's health in danger. 

"We know how to prevent all diabetes complications," Goldstein said. Some people still run into complications, Goldstein explained, because they don't follow the recommendations of their doctors, receive substandard care, or "watch crazy videos" like the one on "The Big Diabetes Lie" website.

The website is manipulative, Goldstein said, because it "combines some truthful things with nonsense." Yes, changes in diet can control diabetes for some patients. But other patients, even those with Type 2 diabetes, need drugs or insulin to control the disease. Advising everyone to avoid these treatments, and ignore the advice of doctors, is extremely dangerous. 

"It's hard to treat diabetes well. It takes a lot of discipline. But you have to know what you have to do," Goldstein explained. 

Buried at the very bottom of "The Big Diabetes Lie" page is a "disclaimer" that underscores Goldstein's points. After telling people with diabetes that their doctor is leading them to a painful death, the "disclaimer" warns that it "is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease." The company behind the product, according to the "disclaimer," is not "engaged in rendering medical or similar professional services or advice via this website or in the product, and the information provided is not intended to replace medical advice offered by a physician or other licensed healthcare provider."

The man behind Rowdy Republican

The "about" page of Rowdy Republican lists "isthatbaloney.com," as the affiliated website. That domain is registered to Alan LeStourgeon, a content marketer from Florida. According to LeStourgeon's Facebook page, he works "at home as an affiliate marketer, political commentator, and runs several Facebook pages."

In 2009, LeStourgeon was the subject of an FTC complaint for impersonating a government website, MakingHomeAffordable.gov, designed to help struggling homeowners. The complaint alleged that LeStourgeon "bought advertising links on the results pages of Internet search engines, and consumers looking for 'making home affordable' were diverted to commercial Web sites that pitched loan modification services or sold consumers’ personal information to marketers of such services." According to the FTC, the action was part of its "crackdown on scams that prey on financially distressed homeowners." 

LeStourgeon did not admit guilt but agreed to a settlement that permanently banned him from "advertising, marketing, promoting, offering for sale, or selling any mortgage loan modification or foreclosure relief service." He also agreed to pay a penalty of $7,803 and to cooperate with the FTC's broader investigation, among other requirements.

LeStourgeon did not create "The Big Diabetes Lie" website or the ebook. Rather, it is one of the hundreds of schemes available through ClickBank, a company that offers products for affiliate marketers. The listing for the program promises "Insane Conversions," "New Upsells," and "More $$$ Per Sale!!"

The truth about Max Sidorov 

"The Big Diabetes Lie" website claims its methods are "Real Dr. Approved" and is produced by the "International Council for Truth In Medicine." The author of the book is listed as Max Sidorov. On his Facebook profile, Max Sidorov describes himself as the "CEO and Founder at International Truth in Medicine Council." 

On Facebook, Max Sidorov lists an undergraduate degree in 2008 from York University in Toronto, but no medical training. A biography from another company Sidorov founded says he has "studied traditional massage, visceral manipulation, craniosacral therapy and accupressure [sic]." The same biography says Sidorov has "studied the Montessori method and worked at a Montessori kindergarten, was a camp counselor for a children's summer camp, worked as a personal trainer, and now is a health and wellness coach to people from all across the world." There is no mention of medical training or expertise in diabetes treatment.

The top of the website includes a picture of Max Sidorov, listed as "M Sidorov." The photo is also featured on Sidorov's Facebook page. 

Fact-check failure

Facebook's solution to combating misinformation is working with approved third-party fact-checkers to evaluate content. But bowing to pressure from the right-wing, it has "balanced" mainstream sources like the Associated Press or Factcheck.org with rabidly partisan right-wing outlets. Facebook partnered with Tucker Carlson's website, the Daily Caller, to "fact check" content on the social network. The Daily Caller was selected even though it has repeatedly published misinformation without basic fact-checking, including a false claim that a United States Senator hired prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.

The Daily Caller's fact check site, CheckYourFact, reviewed one posting by the Rowdy Republican page in January 2019. The post, like most on the Rowdy Republican page, included a link to "The Big Diabetes Lie" website. But the Daily Caller fact check ignored the link and the message about diabetes that was featured prominently in the post and just checked the right-wing meme that accompanied it.

It pronounced the Rowdy Republican post "True." 

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