Peer to Peer Health Networks, Trust … and Facebook

Unless you’ve been visiting another planet lately, you’ve probably seen a headline or two (or maybe fifty) about the rising sense that the social network called Facebook might not be trustworthy when it comes to data privacy for the network’s users. Not that the barrage of headlines over the last year have been the first time the company has had to go into crisis communications mode over data privacy issues – there was a dustup over user privacy that led to a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) consent decree in 2011, which Facebook has apparently ignored in the ensuing eight years – but the current contretemps over betraying user privacy makes the 2011 headlines look like a radar blip.

The impact on Facebook patient communities, who have made extensive use of the Facebook Groups product to gather together to provide support and resources for people dealing with conditions from ALS to rare disease to hereditary cancer risk, is only just starting to break through the noise over the Cambridge Analytica story, which was how the privacy leaks on the platform were first discovered. The ongoing saga of “did the Russians hack the 2016 election,” with Facebook’s likely, if (maybe) unwitting, part in that, adds to the thundering chorus of “what the heck, Zuckerberg” that’s echoing across the globe.

Peer to peer health advice has become part of any person-who-finds-themselves-a-patient’s self-advocacy routine – just ask internet geologist Susannah Fox, who has made a successful career out of observing what people do with the information access bonanza known as “The Internet.” Facebook has become the go-to platform where people gather to discuss their health issues, usually in Closed or Secret Groups, where all kinds of deeply personal and intimate details of their lives, and health conditions, get shared. Discovering that those personal, intimate details had basically been released into the wilds of the web, willy-nilly, with no way to track where that data wound up, has rocked communities around the world who relied on Facebook to provide the connections they’ve come to depend on to manage their health conditions.

In the slow-motion train wreck that the reveal of this data leakage/breach has been, cybersecurity researchers Andrea Downing and Fred Trotter get a lot of credit for digging into the Facebook API to figure out how a Closed Group could become a data-slurping bonanza for any jackass on the internet. Trotter and health-tech legal eagle David Harlow filed a complaint with the FTC, co-signed by Downing and bioinformatics guru Matt Might, spelling out exactly how Facebook had played fast and loose with their Terms of Service for the product, and also allowing their Developer platform to become a data-miner’s paradise with a “there are no rules, really” accountability framework when it came to data snagging.

Since discovering the security vulnerability in 2018, reporting it to Facebook, getting what amounted to a “so what?” response from the platform, and then trying to figure out how to keep community members’ data safe, Andrea Downing, along with Fred Trotter, David Harlow and, full disclosure, yours truly, along with a host of other patient activists, have formed a collective to figure out how to create a community platform for patient communities *off* of Facebook. Stay tuned for updates, that’s going to be a big job, and it’s going to take time and some serious deep thinking and heavy lifting.

In a piece on the Tincture health channel on Medium, “Our Cancer Support Group On Facebook Is Trapped,” Andrea spells out the issue clearly, emphasizing that the promise of connected community that Facebook offered exists nowhere else … yet. And until it does, patient communities are indeed trapped on the network, since that’s still where they get and give the support so deeply needed by people who get a diagnosis, and who want to find out from someone who’s been there, done that, what their own future might hold.

It’s not an easy-to-solve problem, this betrayal of trust that creates a pressing need for the creation of a safe harbor. I’m putting it before you on the Patient Empowerment Network since I know that everyone who reads the pieces posted here has a stake in peer to peer health, and the trust framework that’s required for peer health resources to be effective. If trust is the new network effect, it’s incumbent on those of us who advocate for robust online peer interaction in health, and healthcare, to call for more trustworthy platforms to support our work.

Let’s get on that.