Is there any more tantalizing headline than “Scientists discover a cure for cancer”? Some version of this fantastical claim has been dropped into the news cycle with the regularity of a super blood wolf moon for the better part of a century. In 1998, James Watson told the New York Times a cancer cure would arrive by Y2K . This magazine hasn’t been immune either, running an “End of Cancer” headline a few years later. Each instance stirs up hope for patients and their families desperate to find a solution, no matter the risk or cost. And yet, here we are in 2019, with that constellation of complex, diverse diseases we lump together and call “cancer” for convenience's sake still killing one in eight men and one in 11 women, according to the World Health Organization’s latest stats .
You’d think creators and consumers of news would have learned their lesson by now. But the latest version of the fake cancer cure story is even more flagrantly flawed than usual. The public’s cancer cure-shaped amnesia, and media outlets’ willingness to exploit it for clicks, are as bottomless as ever. Hope, it would seem, trumps history.
On Monday, The Jerusalem Post , a centrist Israeli newspaper, published an online story profiling a small company called Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies that has been working on a potential anti-cancer drug cocktail since 2000. It was somewhat cautiously headlined “A Cure for Cancer? Israeli Scientists Think They Found One,” and relied almost entirely on an interview with the company’s board chairman, Dan Aridor, one of just three individuals listed on AEBi’s website . In it, Aridor made a series of sweeping claims, including this eye-popper: “We believe we will offer in a year’s time a complete cure for cancer.”
It was an especially brash move considering the company has not yet conducted a single trial in humans, or published an ounce of data from its completed studies of petri dish cells and rodents in cages. Under normal drug development proceedings, a pharmaceutical startup would submit such pre-clinical work to peer-review to support any claims and use it to drum up funding for clinical testing. AEBi’s PR move might be an attempt at a shortcut. In an interview on Tuesday, the company’s founder and CEO Ilan Morad told the Times of Israel that lack of cash flow is the reason AEBi has elected not to publish data.
The original Jerusalem Post article did not interview any outside experts in the oncology field. Nor did it inject any skepticism about the gap between speculative, pre-clinical work in controlled laboratory environments and a universal cure on a twelve-month timeline. Anyone who knows anything about oncology will tell you that a vast number of promising treatments fail human testing. One recent estimate put success rates for cancer drugs getting to market at a dismal 3.4 percent.
What People are Saying
About 12 hours after The Jerusalem Post tweeted out a link to its story, figures from the far right began to amplify its optimistic headline. Pro-Trump twitter troll Jacob Wohl posted it , followed shortly by conservative political pundit Glenn Beck, who added his own self-aggrandizing touch. “As we have hoped and prayed, and I spoke about happening by 2030: A TOTAL cure for cancer.”
By Tuesday morning, Fox News had published its own report . The story did add some caveats, including a strongly worded comment emailed from a New York oncology expert, who called AEBi’s claim likely to be “yet another in a long line of spurious, irresponsible, and ultimately cruel false promises for cancer patients.” But Fox’s grabby headline retained a nearly identical formula to the original Jerusalem Post story, and was copied by similar reports that cropped up on local TV news spots from Philadelphia to Melbourne, Australia.
While many major news outlets ignored the story, the New York Post and Forbes both published their own glowing versions, based largely on the Jerusalem Post ’s reporting. But within 24 hours, both sites had come out with new, decidedly less rosy stories, in which they (gasp!) interviewed cancer experts. Forbes actually published two. One by the original story’s author was entitled “Experts Decry Israeli Team’s Claims That They Have Found The Cure For Cancer,” and another, headlined even more explicitly : “An Israeli Company Claims That They Will Have A Cure For Cancer In A Year. Don’t Believe Them.”
Such course correction is not unusual, nor nefarious, in the fast-moving world of online journalism. But, as scholars of the internet attest, misinformation spreads faster online than attempts to claw it back. While outrage may be the fuel that feeds the virality of most fake news stories, when it comes to news about our health, people tend to be motivated by a more upbeat impulse. “Positivity looms larger in deciding both what to read and what to share,” wrote Hyun Suk Kim, a communications researcher at Ohio State University, in one analysis of how health news stories get shared through social networks.
So the “Cancer Cured!” piece is going to travel farther, faster, than the “Cancer Still Sucks” story. Case in point, when Forbes tweeted out its original article , it received 47 replies, 821 retweets, and 1,635 likes. The one that went out a day later , publicizing a 180-degree reversal in tone, has so far received a mere 4 replies, 30 retweets, and 61 likes.
Why It Matters
Social media makes it easier than ever to be a non-critical consumer of information. The constant scroll-scroll-scroll is practically designed to encourage lazy thinking. At the same time, people are hungry for a life preserver of good news amid the toxic content spewing from platforms like Twitter and Facebook. When every day online feels like a battle across party, sex, race, class, and even generational lines, cancer is a unifying enemy. A story about the end of cancer could be an olive branch to a sick friend or a relative across the social divide. Or it might just allow you to believe, for one blissful moment, that your body’s cells aren’t already on an unstoppable mutational march toward your demise.
But all the armchair philosophizing in the world can’t change the ugly truth of the persistent cancer-cure meme: Peddling false hope is immoral.
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