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Snake oil salesmen come out in force during uncertain times

Snake oil salesmen come out in force during uncertain times

Picture of William Heisel
All things that won’t cure COVID-19.
All things that won’t cure COVID-19.

I wrote and rewrote this sentence three times, each time erasing the words. How do you write about #fakenews without spreading #fakenews?

That’s the difficulty journalists face in this incredibly uncertain time. Within a few weeks of the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States, stories started to appear about snake oil salesmen pushing fake cures and preventative measures. 

The most famous of these was televangelist Jim Bakker, a pastor with a shady past who brought a guest on his show to push a product carrying false claims that it would eliminate the coronavirus. The state of Missouri took this so seriously that it sued Morningside Church Productions, which runs the Jim Bakker Show Ministry. According to court records, Bakker violated the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act “by falsely promising to consumers that Silver Solution can cure, eliminate, kill or deactivate coronavirus and/or boost elderly consumers’ immune system and help keep them healthy when there is, in fact, no vaccine, pill, potion or other product available to treat or cure coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).”

Another huckster started selling “Corona-Cure Antiseptic Nasal Defense” with this bold claim that was called out in a warning letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:

“Our instant protection nasal spray is designed to protect your vulnerable nasal passages from infection by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus specifically and other viruses in general.”

The FDA keeps a handy list of its coronavirus-related warning letters on its website. And one of the things you will notice when you review it is that the growth of scams has tracked the spread of the virus. In March, the agency issued a dozen warning letters. In April, the agency issued 25 more (doubling the number). In May, the tally is up to 26 as of May 29. My bet is that over the summer, as people are getting out of their houses more and more, there will be an appetite for more quick fix “cures” and “protections.” Expect snake oil. 

So how do you cover the fake cures without giving them more oxygen than they deserve? That’s really the first question you should have: does this merit a story? I have criticized the rush to cover a health “solution” many times in this space. Just because somebody is selling something does not make it worth your time or the risk to your audience’s health that comes with publicity. I noticed when reading through the FDA warning letter that many of these phony remedies had received little to no coverage. That’s as it should be. The FDA caught the scam before it went viral, and there is no sense in you reviving the lie.

But remain vigilant. Are you starting to see some of these scams become the topic of conversations on social media? I’m not talking about mentions fueled by Twitter bots and concern trolls but conversations among real members of your audience. Are your receiving questions from people in your audience – people you can verify — about some of these scams? Did some of these snake oil salesmen manage to buy ads on your own website promoting false remedies right alongside your very legitimate news story?

Once one of these fake remedies winds its way into the public conversation, you can do a public service by putting it to rest. When you do find a story, stick to the facts and don’t get into a he said, she said. Matthew Schwartz at NPR nicely described the problem with the silver-based snake oil being sold on Bakker’s show in a piece in March. He ended it with the most important thing you can do for your audience: stating unequivocally that the remedy being sold does not work and, even worse, can hurt you.

For the past two decades, the FDA's message has been clear: Silver doesn't work to combat serious diseases. Over-the-counter drugs that contain colloidal silver ingredients "are not generally recognized as safe and effective," it says. According to the National Institutes of Health, very little evidence backs up the health-related claims of silver. "Colloidal silver can be dangerous to your health," the NIH says.

If reporters don’t point out the fraudsters, they may continue to go about their business, making money off well-founded fears and preying on the vulnerable.

Don’t let snake oil salesmen deceive your audience. As you see their influence taking hold, do your part to counter their cynical opportunism with a dose of truth.


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