• Health

Here is who repeated an unsupported claim about “a complete cure for cancer in a year”, misleading millions on social media

Posted on:  2019-02-15

Another purported cure-all for cancer

A claim that the “first complete cure for cancer” had been discovered by an Israeli startup made waves on the Internet recently. This claim originated in a 28 Jan. article by the Jerusalem Post, in which Dan Aridor, CEO of the company Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies (AEBi), announced that they had discovered a cure for cancer using phage display technology. However, upon closer examination of the company’s experimental results thus far, it turned out that these claims were based on only a few experiments on cells in petri dishes and one mouse experiment. Such work falls far short of the standard needed for AEBi to make the claims it did, making their statements highly misleading. As we wrote in our claim review, AEBi’s claims also mislead readers about cancer’s fundamental characteristics and the typical drug development timeline.

Media coverage

This claim of a groundbreaking discovery spread quite widely, mostly driven by the initial coverage from the Jerusalem Post. We identified 709 articles from the past month linking back to the Jerusalem Post article and a few hundreds more covering the claim by conducting a search on Buzzsumo. These articles have been shared nearly 4 million times on social media as of writing, with Facebook accounting for the overwhelming majority of engagements with all articles (98% of all shares happened on Facebook).

We examined each English-language article reporting AEBi’s claims which were shared at least 5,000 times (a total of 76; for the complete list, see below, Table 1). Most of these were news articles, blog posts, commentaries or opinion pieces. Some appeared in partisan outlets such as The Daily Wire, The Western Journal, The Geller Report, The Rush Limbaugh Show and The Federalist.

We found that 59 of these articles took the claim reported by the Jerusalem Post at face value. These articles failed to perform significant fact-checking or scientific verification of these claims (some included only a very minimal check with independent experts) – a basic practice in responsible journalism. These articles also failed to signal to readers that the report was unsubstantiated. We classified these unreliable articles as “repeat” in the figure below.

Of the 59 articles rated “repeat”, Fox News articles stood out, representing 17 articles appearing across various Fox News domains. Most of the articles within the blog/commentary/opinion category were also found to be unreliable and repeated the claim without fact-checking. One of these articles originates from the Natural News blog, which is a well-known source of misleading and/or inaccurate health news. Yet it still garnered more than 17,000 shares on Facebook.

10 articles reported both AEBi’s misleading claims and the point of view of independent physicians and scientists, but did not help readers to assess which claims were more likely correct. As the saying goes in journalism:

“If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the window and find out which is true.”

These articles are classified as “he said she said” in the graph below. Most of them have a misleading title, which does not indicate to readers that the claims are unsubstantiated.

Only 7 articles performed the necessary fact-checking of the claims by seeking experts’ feedback or independently checking current scientific evidence. We classified these articles as “fact-checked”. These were published by Daily Mail, IFLScience, Wired, Newsweek, Forbes, and the blogs A Science Enthusiast and Science-Based Medicine.

Figure – Network of outlets, blogs, and social media profiles who have commented on AEBi’s claim. Dot sizes are proportional to the total number of shares and interactions on social media; arrows display the spread of the claim: pointing from the source article to the one citing or linking to it (click on the map to enlarge)

More trustworthy results on Google

In addition to our Buzzsumo analysis, we also performed several Google searches from different computers in different locations (see here for an example of the search results) for “cure cancer” in the past month. As most readers interact only with the results from the first page, we limited our analysis only to the articles showing on the first page in at least one search (our results might not be exhaustive; see Table 2 below for the list of relevant pages).

We found that most first-page articles were related to the Jerusalem Post article, in keeping with its popularity. However, our results this time were more encouraging. The majority of the listed articles had performed fact-checking, verified the scientific evidence and debunked the hype (10 out of 14). Despite the overwhelmingly large shares enjoyed by misleading articles on Facebook, only 3 articles repeating the claim made it to the first page, as well as 1 article of the “he said she said” type. This indicates Google has a better way of highlighting trustworthy sources, although the presence of misinformation is problematic since users often rely on Google for fact-checking.

Hints of bias

Some of the most-shared articles appeared to give credence to the Israeli team’s claims, not due to the strength of their scientific evidence, but because the writers held a pro-Israel stance. For instance, a blog named Unitedwithisrael.org reported the findings uncritically and The Daily Wire used the headline “Still Want To Boycott Israel? Israeli Scientists Find Cure For Cancer, Report Says”. These and other examples show that a predisposition in favor of the scientists’ country of origin might have caused some writers to overlook the evident flaws in their claims.

Aftermath of claim

AEBi’s claims were roundly criticised by numerous physicians and researchers working on cancer because of the lack of supporting evidence. Certain news outlets, such as Forbes and New York Post, which had published articles announcing these claims without fact-checking, later published articles with comments by relevant experts that explained the problems with AEBi’s claims.

Unfortunately, all this has come too late; none of the later articles involving fact-checking made it to our list of widely-shared articles based on the Jerusalem Post report. Two of the correcting articles from Forbes have each been shared 6,200 and 2,800 times, while the one from the NYPost has been shared 3,500 times. Contrast these numbers with the shares of their earlier misleading articles, which currently stand at over 790,000 times (Forbes) and over 260,000 times (NYPost). So on the whole, these two media outlets have misinformed more people than they have informed.

One of the articles correcting the record was published by Wired, which critiqued the premature claims, commenting on how similar they were to past sensational claims about cancer cure-alls which turned out to be false or unfounded. The article also highlighted how the lack of critical thinking and a desire for positivity drive the propagation of misinformation of this sort. “The ‘Cancer Cured!’ piece is going to travel farther, faster, than the ‘Cancer Still Sucks’ story,” writes Molteni, the article’s author.

In keeping with this statement, we have found that the amount of media coverage that is not credible greatly outweighs those from credible sources. The number of shares from non-credible (“repeat”) articles was more than 3.4 million (87.3% of total shares), with credible articles accounting for just over 120,000 of total shares, a mere 3.1%.

In summary, our observations strongly indicate that the general public is not likely to have come across an insightful and accurate scientific evaluation of the claims. Instead, many people have been exposed to – and maybe have come away with – the idea that all cancers will be completely cured “within a few years”, as AEBi claimed, when all evidence points to the contrary. When the mission of journalists is arguably to leave readers better informed, hundreds of online news sites have instead done the exact opposite. Omitting investigative reporting and independent verification of scientific facts in favour of attention-grabbing headlines –whose effects are amplified by the power of Facebook’s reach– has led to the misleading of many readers.

Such unfounded sensational claims merely provide false hope for desperate patients and their loved ones, causing unwarranted emotional and psychological distress. And when such claims are found to be false, it only adds to the public’s distrust of the medical and scientific communities, which have negative consequences for the public’s attitude towards informed health advice by experts.

Table 1 – List of the most shared articles reporting on the misleading cancer cure claim. Data from buzzsumo.com

Israeli Scientists Say They Will Have A Complete Cure For Cancer Within A Yearforbes.com791874
A cure for cancer? Israeli scientists say they think they found onejpost.com442639
We’ll have a cure for cancer within a year, scientists claimnypost.com260409
Still Want To Boycott Israel? Israeli Scientists Find Cure For Cancer, Report Saysdailywire.com241963
Still Want To Boycott Israel? Israeli Scientists Find Cure For Cancer, Report Saysfullmagazine.us237673
Cure for cancer? Israeli scientists claim to be on brink of developmentfoxnews.com143639
Israeli Scientists Announce Complete ‘Cure for Cancer’ is Coming Soonanonews.co123705
Israeli Team May Have Discovered ‘Complete Cure for Cancer’unitedwithisrael.org117547
cancer cure:Cancer Cure Is Coming By Early 2020, Claim Israeli Scientists Who Developed MuTaTo Treatmentindiatimes.com77868
Israeli scientists claim they’ll have cancer cure in a yearaol.com75812
Cancer cure in sight, Israeli scientists say, but critics unsuredailymail.co.uk63575
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox5ny.com62911
Israeli Scientists Have Just Announced They Have Discovered a Complete Cancer Curetrendingposts.net50933
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox10phoenix.com50241
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox13news.com48436
Whoa: Israeli scientists say they’ve found a ‘complete cure for cancer,’ expect it ready in a yearwesternjournal.com46953
Cure For Cancer Will ‘Arrive In The Next Year’, Scientists Claimunilad.co.uk44708
Cancer Cure: An Isreali company claims to have found 100% cure for cancerindiatimes.com 242020
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfoxla.com40514
Scientists say they may have found ‘complete cure’ for cancerwhdh.com40186
Israeli Scientists Say They’ll Have Cancer Cure in the Next Year: Reportusnews.com38354
Israel scientists find cancer cure: “we will offer in a year’s time a complete cure for cancer.” – Geller Reportgellerreport.com37338
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox4news.com37174
Israeli Scientists: We’ll Have a Cure for Cancer Within a Yearfuturism.com36157
Israeli scientists say they’ll have complete cure for cancer…clickondetroit.com35435
Israeli Scientists Claim Multiple-Attack Drug Cures Cancer, Will Be Ready in 1 Yeartheepochtimes.com34850
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox5atlanta.com34393
Cancer cure? Scientists claim to expect cure in one yearfox2detroit.com32565
Scientists ‘find cure for cancer which will be available within a year’mirror.co.uk31773
There Will Be a Cure for Cancer Within a Year, Israeli Scientists Claim, but Others Not so Suretheepochtimes.com 231655
We’ll have the first cure for cancer within a YEAR, scientists claimthesun.co.uk30373
Israeli scientists say they may find a cure for cancer within a yearwsvn.com30371
Scientists say they’ll have complete cancer cure within a yearlocal10.com27242
Israeli scientists say they will cure cancer – ALL cancers – within 1 yearascienceenthusiast.com24051
Israeli scientists claim to have found cure for cancerwfla.com23050
Israeli Scientists Say Miracle Drug Will ‘Completely’ Cure Cancerfaithwire.com21987
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearktvu.com21561
Israeli scientists say they’ll have complete cure for cancer…news4jax.com19225
What Would the Cure for Cancer Mean?rushlimbaugh.com18640
Cancer Cure? Israeli Scientists Think They Found Oneboston.cbslocal.com17767
Cancer industry plotting to DESTROY the new cancer cure developed by Israeli scientists… the attacks have already begunnaturalnews.com17082
Israeli Scientists Say They Will Cure Cancer – ALL Cancers – Within 1 Yearsci-techuniverse.com17016
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox35orlando.com16877
Israeli Scientists Just Announced a “Complete Cure” for Cancer is Comingthemindunleashed.com14795
Israeli scientists say cancer cure close; doctors here are skepticalabc7chicago.com14308
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox29.com14087
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox26houston.com13650
Cancer Cure Just One Year Away, Scientists Claimpittsburgh.cbslocal.com13244
Israeli Scientists May Have Discovered Complete Cure For Cancerthefederalistpapers.org13148
Scientists Claim a Cancer Cure Will Be Available Within a Yeardistractify.com12757
Cure for cancer – Israeli scientists claim they will have it within a yearnewsner.com12509
Israeli Scientists: Cure for Cancer Likely in a Yearnewsmax.com12399
Cure For Cancer Just One Year Away, Claim Israeli Scientistsallthatsinteresting.com12300
Cancer Cure Just One Year Away, Scientists Claimphiladelphia.cbslocal.com11772
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox5dc.com11491
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox46charlotte.com10887
Found 100% cure for cancer, Israeli company’s claim | Lifestyle – Times of India Videosindiatimes.com 310599
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox7austin.com9904
Scientists expect a cure for cancer in one yearfox17.com8627
An Israeli Biotech Company Says They’ll Cure Cancer In A Year. Here’s Why That’s Not Trueiflscience.com8475
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox32chicago.com8340
Cancer Cure Just One Year Away, Scientists Claimdenver.cbslocal.com8090
The ‘Complete’ Cancer Cure Story Is Both Bogus and Tragicwired.com7700
Israeli scientists believe they’ve found cure for cancercbs7.com7642
Cancer cure within a year, say Israeli scientists: Take these steps to prevent or reduce your risk of cancertimesnownews.com7626
They’re selling unicorns:’ Israel cancer cure claim debunked by expertsnewsweek.com7348
Cancer cure could be available within a year, scientists claimnews.com.au6615
Cure for cancer? Israeli scientists say they may have found onewxyz.com6278
An Israeli Company Claims That They Will Have A Cure For Cancer In A Year. Don’t Believe Them.forbes.com 26180
Just In: Israeli Scientists Announce “Complete Cure For Cancer”illicitinfo.com5800
Scientists Claim ‘We Will Offer In A Year’s Time A Complete Cure For Cancer’disclose.tv5798
Report: Israel May Have Just Found the Cure for Cancerredstate.com5567
Scientists expect cure for cancer in 1 yearfox35orlando.com5545
Israeli scientists claim to have found cure for cancerwkrg.com5416
Is An Israeli Company About to Cure Cancer?sciencebasedmedicine.org5352
Israeli scientists claim cancer cure just a year awaynzherald.co.nz5123

Table 2 – List of results from Google search for the phrase “cure cancer” appearing on the first page of at least one query

Is An Israeli Company About to Cure Cancer?sciencebasedmedicine.orgfact-checked
False Hope And Cancer Curescuretoday.comfact-checked
Cure for Cancer in One Year?curetoday.comfact-checked
A Cure For Cancer In Just One Year? Don’t Believe the Hypecancerhealth.comfact-checked
There Is No Cure For Cancermedium.comfact-checked
The modern tragedy of fake cancer curesstatnews.comfact-checked
An Israeli Company Claims That They Will Have A Cure For Cancer In A Year. Don’t Believe Them.forbes.comfact-checked
Israeli Cancer Cure: Medical Miracle or Fake News?thetruthaboutcancer.comfact-checked
Viral News Stories Claim We’re About To Cure Cancer. Here’s The Truthiflscience.comfact-checked
cancer cure: Cancer Cure Is Coming By Early 2020, Claim Israeliindiatimes.comrepeat
Cancer cure within a year, say Israeli scientists: Take these steps to prevent or reduce your risk of cancertimesnownews.comrepeat
BioEdge: Countdown: one year to a complete cure for cancerbioedge.orgHe said she said
Israeli Scientists Say They’ll Have Cure for Cancer Within a Year. Here’s Why That’s Highly Unlikelylivescience.comfact-checked
We’ll have a cure for cancer within a year, Israeli scientists claimnews.com.aurepeat

Science Feedback is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to science education. Our reviews are crowdsourced directly from a community of scientists with relevant expertise. We strive to explain whether and why information is or is not consistent with the science and to help readers know which news to trust.
Please get in touch if you have any comment or think there is an important claim or article that would need to be reviewed.

Published on:

Related Articles